It’s So Easy to Root for Women Who Cheat … Onscreen

TV and movies are a lot more forgiving to them than real life.

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Diane Lane and Olivier Martinez in the 2002 thriller Unfaithful (Photo: 20th Century Fox)

Infidelity has always made me squirm. Although I’ve softened my deal-breaker stance on it in recent years, I still tend to cling to the “Once a cheater, always a cheater” point of view when I’m watching it go down onscreen. Well, actually, that depends on the cheater — or rather, her gender.

Women cheated in at least three of the series I’ve binged on in the past year — Atypical, Sex Education, and Love, Victor — and I forgave them well before they earned absolution from their partners (and in two cases, their especially unforgiving daughters). It’s an old TV-viewing habit: The same thing happened when Dawson Leery’s mom stepped out on his dad in the early seasons of Dawson’s Creek and when Carrie Bradshaw ping-ponged between Big and Aiden in Sex and the City the series and the second movie. I even gave Sarah Jessica Parker a quick pass after her character broke her wedding vows in her follow-up HBO series, Divorce.

Maybe it’s the fact that I love all three actresses who played the unfaithful ones over the past year (Jennifer Jason Leigh in Atypical, Gillian Anderson in Sex Education, and Ana Ortiz in Love, Victor), but would I have been so forgiving if their cuckolded guys had been the ones to stray? Would the writers even have expected that of me?

Is it just me or do male main characters come across as far less redeemable when they cheat on TV and in movies — as in, say, Showtime’s The Affair, or the 1995 film Waiting to Exhale? The writers typically make them pay far weightier prices. Jeremy Irons had to lose everything in 1992’s Damage to balance the scales. Meanwhile, Juliette Binoche, his partner in cheating, got a gorgeous exit scene. Binoche’s philandering husband in Trois couleurs: Bleu lost his life at the beginning of the 1993 drama, well before we even found out he’d been cheating. In Fatal Attraction, Glenn Close had to go homicidal for Michael Douglas to get an ounce of sympathy.

Unlike in real life, cheating men on TV and in movies have to work a lot harder than women for absolution. If he leaves his wife for another man, we’re expected to be sympathetic (and so is the wife), but heaven help the male movie or TV husband or boyfriend who strays with a woman. He’d better be prepared to suffer before viewers or the writers give him a pass.

Can you forgive her?

That’s a lot different than it is here in the real world, where the considerable inequalities that persist between the sexes usually favor men. When it comes to onscreen sexuality, though, women can get away with a lot more than guys, as long as they’re careful to limit their number of conquests (for it’s still far too easy to qualify as a “slut” in the minds of the hopelessly judgmental, onscreen and off).

I’m fairly certain Sam Neill’s cutting (literally) response to Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel’s dalliance in the 1993 film The Piano would have been positively cheer-worthy if he had been the cheater and she the one wielding that ax.

They can slap a guy without being labeled abusive, they get to come on way too strong in the name of seduction without being labelled predatory, and we more readily forgive them their onscreen infidelities, even if people end up dying for it. Jennifer Aniston didn’t meet her maker because she found Jake Gyllenhaal too hot to resist in the 2002 drama The Good Girl (he did). Kristin Scott Thomas did get a one-way ticket to the upper room after stepping out on Colin Firth with Ralph Fiennes in 1996’s The English Patient (as did both men), but it made her extramarital affair that much more iconic.

Would The English Patient have been such a critically acclaimed sensation, would it have won the Best Picture Oscar, would its central romance have been considered such an epic love story, if Fiennes had been the married one? Would the extreme reaction of Colin Firth as a cheated-on spouse have been more acceptable coming from Kristin Scott Thomas? I’m fairly certain Sam Neill’s cutting (literally) response to Holly Hunter and Harvey Keitel’s dalliance in the 1993 film The Piano would have been positively cheer-worthy if he had been the cheater and she the one wielding that ax.

The division between the onscreen accountability of the sexes became even more clear to me after I watched a documentary on the 1987 film Fatal Attraction on the Biography Channel. Glenn Close kept talking about how she wanted to bring out the humanity of her Alex Forrest character, make her seem as vulnerable as she was vicious. Being the skilled thespian that she is (indeed, more than 30 years later, I still think she should have gone all Alex Forrest on Moonstruck’s Cher for stealing the Best Actress Oscar), Close realized her aspirations — but only to a point.

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Glenn Close and Michael Douglas in the 1987 sexual thriller Fatal Attraction (Photo: Paramount Pictures)

Was Forrest the sympathetic character that Close considered her to be? Not when her moments of vulnerability always came with such a menacing edge. Rejection is part of life. We all experience it at some point. Most of us have a few good cries, toss and turn in bed for several sleepless nights, devour a few pints of ice cream, or, if we’re like Joan Allen in The Upside of Anger, become a bitter drunk.

When you start making thinly veiled threats — “I will not be ignored” — and boiling bunny rabbits, it becomes less about vulnerability and humanity than insanity and extreme narcissism, itself a blend of insecurity and vanity, both of which, in Forrest’s case, approached lethal levels. But it wasn’t until she offed a cuddly pet and, even more unconscionably, menaced the wife (Anne Archer, also Oscar-nominated), that the movie really turned against her. Before that, I believe we were supposed to think Michael Douglas’s Daniel Gallagher was getting what he deserved.

“I will not be ignored.” Reconsider it. Coming from a female character, it became a sort-of mantra of empowerment. I don’t think many people were rooting for Forrest, but what effect would that comment have had coming from a male character?

I suspect that for many women at the time, part of the draw of Fatal Attraction was watching a husband pay for his sex crime. They dragged their significant others to the theater to see the movie in droves, and I can just imagine their warnings as the credits rolled: “See? Cheat on me, and there might be hell to pay.”

Fatal Attraction’s original ending had Forrest committing suicide and Gallagher being accused of her murder, convicted and sentenced to death. Producer Sherry Lansing thought it was the perfect denouement — “Actions have consequences,” she said in the documentary, as if cheating should actually be a crime of passion punishable by lethal injection — while Glenn Close loved it because it preserved her character’s all-important humanity.

Did death become her?

The horror-story ending the filmmakers went with due to poor test-audience response to the original conclusion, presented Alex as an irredeemable monster, when in the eyes of the producer and female lead, she was a victim of male lust and lack of compassion. In my opinion, the ending made the film — and I hate horror movies!

As I listened to Lansing and Close argue their cases (and by the time the movie had become the second-highest-grossing film of 1987, thanks, in large part, to the crowd-pleasing ending, both had come around), I wondered if they would have felt the same way if the genders had been reversed. A decade later, the film’s director Adrian Lyne would return to similar marital terrain with Unfaithful, which came out the same year as The Good Girl, Chicago, and The Hours. All of them featured female characters straying in different ways.

What if the Unfaithful script had called for the other man, Olivier Martinez, to turn psycho, boiling pets and threatening Diane Lane’s character and her family? Would anyone have looked for the humanity in him? In Unfaithful, Richard Gere’s faithful husband suffered a lot more than his cheating wife.

I suspect for many women at the time, part of the draw of Fatal Attraction, which was the number-two box-office hit of 1987, was watching a husband pay for his sex crime. They probably dragged their significant others to the theater to see the movie in droves, and I can just imagine their warnings as the credits rolled: “See? Cheat on me, and there might be hell to pay.”

I imagine many of them were saying the same thing three years later, when Bonnie Bedelia framed Harrison Ford in Presumed Innocent, and five more years on, when Angela Bassett lit up a cheating bastard’s wardrobe in Waiting to Exhale. Those same female moviegoers, like me, probably admired Diane Lane in Unfaithful, for looking so good in her late thirties (which seemed a lot older then than it does now) and landing an extramarital lover as hot and young as Olivier Martinez, who’s actually only one year younger than Lane.

The woman scorned is a pop-cultural touchstone. We may not like her actions, but in the hands of the right actress, we’re more likely to accept what she does in the name of unrequited love than a guy in the same position because, well, she’s a victim in so many other ways. A leading man scorned who goes too far is a psychotic who needs to be six feet under by the final frame.

So can we forgive her, the female cheater in movies and on TV? I almost always can, even if I’ve never really forgiven Robert C. Reilly for striking Jennifer Aniston after finding out about her fling with Jake Gyllenhaal in The Good Girl. He had to play a spouse scorned again and again that year, in Chicago and The Hours, and as far as I was concerned, he couldn’t pay enough for that one slap.

I secretly hoped for all three of his cheating wives to live happily ever after, but not once, not even during “Mr. Cellophane,” did I catch myself seriously rooting for him.

Written by

Brother Son Husband Friend Loner Minimalist World Traveler. Author of “Is It True What They Say About Black Men?” and “Storms in Africa”

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