Stand By Your Man: The Female Foil and the American Politico’s Performance of Penance


Anthony Weiner and Huma Abedin

by Legacy Russell

Sometimes it’s hard to be a woman / Giving all your love to just one man / You’ll have bad times / And he’ll have good times / Doing things that you don’t understand / But if you love him you’ll forgive him / Even though he’s hard to understand / And if you love him / Oh be proud of him / ‘Cause after all he’s just a man / Stand by your man / Give him two arms to cling to / And something warm to come to / When nights are cold and lonely
Stand by your man / And tell the world you love him / Keep giving all the love you can / Stand by your man / Stand by your man / And show the world you love him / Keep giving all the love you can / Stand by your man.

— “Stand By Your Man”, Tammy Wynette, 1968[1]

The Prosecutor asked him to tell the court if he’d seen me weep. And when Pérez answered, ‘No,’ added emphatically: ‘I trust the jury will take note of this reply.’

My lawyer rose at once, and asked Pérez in a tone that seemed to me needlessly aggressive:

‘Now, think well, my man! Can you swear you saw he didn’t shed a tear?’

Pérez answered, ‘No.’

At this some people tittered, and my lawyer, pushing back one sleeve of his gown, said sternly:

‘That is typical of the way this case is being conducted. No attempt is being made to elicit the true facts.’

The Stranger, Albert Camus[2]

In Albert Camus’ 1942 text The Stranger, it is the protagonist’s lack of emotional display that ultimately brands him as culpable. Devoid of any visible showing of regret, it is assumed by those observing him that he is “soul[less]” (Camus, 63), and, in lacking a soul, worthy of punishment. The narrative arc of Camus’ novel ultimately illustrates a simple social paradigm: where there is no showing of regret, there will be no forgiveness. This tension between speech and action within the performance of regret, oft taking place in the form of public apology, is at once both anxiety-provoking and alluring. As Sarah Ahmed observes in The Cultural Politics of Emotion:

The difficulty is that whilst apologies are doing something, it is not clear what they are doing. What would be the condition of happiness or success? Would it be for the other to accept the apology? Or is something more at stake? . . . [Such] example[s] ask . . . us to think about what is ‘an action’. Here, an action does not simply happen as if by magic. An action also requires a decision; we have to decide what it is that apologies do precisely because the ‘action’ is not finished in the moment of apologizing . . . But the precision of the apology is complicated because the ‘action’ named by the ‘verb’ is unfinished. (115)

Camus’ text raises many questions about the “value of words” (Camus, 63) as informed by action, calling into query the relationship between speech and performativity and, in turn, the authenticity of affect in public apologia.

The construct of “apologia” has an extensive and complex history. Customary “ . . . in the classical Greek legal system in rebuttal to the prosecution’s accusations” (Smith, 8), the formal root of the more commonly used word “apology”[3] is Latin in origin and most primarily means “an apology, as in defense or justification” or a “formal written defense of a cause or one’s beliefs or conduct.”[4] Apologia “still finds use in . . . [the] offering of a defense of one’s position, and the field of apologetics has come to be associated with the long tradition of defending and reinforcing . . . doctrine . . . through argumentation (Smith, 8).”[5] An apology, when voiced, is typically only one-half of the equation; the other half is forgiveness. The former (an apology) is extended with the hope of obtaining the latter (forgiveness). As outlined by the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

The term ‘forgive’ derives from ‘give’ or to ‘grant’, as in ‘to give up’, or ‘cease to harbor (resentment, wrath).’ More specifically, ‘forgive’ refers to the act of giving up a feeling . . . And the term ‘forgiveness’ is defined as the action of forgiving, pardoning of a fault . . . and similar responses to injury, wrongdoing, or obligation. In this sense of the term, forgiveness is a dyadic relation involving a wrongdoer and a wronged party, and is thought to be a way in which victims of wrong alter their and wrongdoer’s status by, for instance, acknowledging yet moving past a transgression.[6]

This essay takes a critical look at four major apologies as enacted within the last ten years by American politicians David Vitter (July 2007), Kwame Kilpatrick (January 2008), Elliott Spitzer (March 2008), and Anthony Weiner (June 2011), respectively. More specifically, it explores the “juxtapolitical” (Berlant, 3) function of a politician’s wife, in relation to her husband and the strategic role she plays during his public apology. Erving Goffman outlines the integral components of apology in his Relations in Public:

. . . expression of embarrassment and chagrin; clarification that one knows what conduct had been expected and sympathies with the application of negative sanction; verbal rejection, repudiation, and disavowal of the wrong way of behaving along with vilification of the self that so behaved; espousal of the right way and an avowal henceforth to pursue that course; performance of penance and the volunteering of restitution. (113)

An apology is therefore inherently and inescapably reactionary, taking place after a violation, and often exercised with an interest in preventing further damage, a gesture extended by a politician in a period of chaos as an effort to regain control of his or her public image or reputation. Each is “pursued with ritual care” (Goffman, Interaction Ritual, 36) by whomever announces it, inextricably intertwined with whatever digressions that prompt such actions of public penance. The most “ . . . meaningful [apologies] . . . address [our] deepest pains, fears, values, and hopes,” (Smith, 9) and “ . . . often strike at the heart of our deontological commitments[,] . . . call[ing] on us to honor our basic duties (Smith, 10).” It is the assumed “moral judgment” of a vigilant public that makes the political apology a pressured requirement, ultimately “lead[ing] to [a projection of political] affect . . . [—] not the other way around” (The Moral Psychology Handbook, 48). How does the body of a politician’s wife perform as a moral agent in the process of broadcasted apology? In what way is the female form, positioned within these events, a foil for her husband? Is the politician’s wife a projection of strategic “sentimentality[7]” (Berlant, 35), or does her performance extend beyond such particularities of nostalgia? Such questions negotiate “ . . . the apology as speech act” (Ahmed, 114) in contrast with representations of “public morality” (Ahmed, 113), as inferred and symbolized by the female corpus—the wives of bigwig politicos—put on display and broadcast within the machinations of American media.



[Fig. 1-4] From L-R: Senator David Vitter and wife, Wendy Vitter, 2007.

[1] Wendy Vitter remains silent for the first portion of Senator Vitter’s apology; Senator Vitter takes centerstage.


[2] Senator Vitter and Wendy Vitter do not make eye contact, nor physical contact, throughout the course of their respective remarks.


[3] Wendy Vitter is positioned in the foreground while Senator Vitter is in the background, asserting a clear visual hierarchy.


[4] Wendy Vitter speaks emphatically on behalf of her family and her marriage while Senator Vitter stands by.

 In July of 2007, it was revealed that the Louisiana Republican Senator David Vitter had made use of an escort service run by a woman named Deborah J. Palfrey[9], who famously came to be known by many as the “D.C. Madam” (Rood, in the high-profile case that ensued. “According to Palfrey’s lawyer, Vitter’s number appeared on a February 2001 phone record[s]” (Rood, of Palfrey’s business, Pamela Martin & Associates, described by Palfrey during the trial as, “a legal, high-end erotic fantasy service.”[10] It was investigative reporter and author Dan Moldea—at the time working on co-authoring a book with Palfrey about her own past— who provided Hustler magazine[11] publisher Larry Flynt the tip-off that, in turn, prompted a phone call to Senator Vitter from an editor at Hustler. In the weeks that followed after the surfacing of these allegations, Vitter, who had campaigned for his 2004 U.S. Senatorial position on a platform of conservative family values[12] (to be later re-elected in 2010, despite the surfacing of this scandal), made a televised statement to the press, with his wife, Wendy Vitter, at his side [Fig. 1-4].

“I want to offer my deep, sincere apologies to all those I have let down and disappointed with these actions from my past. I am completely responsible, and I am so very, very sorry,” began Senator Vitter in his announcement, broadcast via the CNN network on July 16th, 2007. Thirty-seven seconds into Senator Vitter’s apology, the Senator performs the strange action of meeting himself halfway, extending forgiveness from a higher power, and from his wife, to himself in his stating: “I believe I received forgiveness from God, I know I did from Wendy, and we put it behind us.” The calling upon “God” and “Wendy” alike places those looking on in a compromising position—how can the public deny Senator Vitter forgiveness when it has already been implied that he has the force of both family and divine power behind him?

The story of Wendy Vitter (née “Baldwin”) is one that is not unusual within the scope of American politic[13]: ambitious career woman forgoes her own professional pursuits in the interest of supporting her husband’s political campaign; husband-as-politician comes under scrutiny for his infidelity; wife stands by her man, riding the wave of scandal along with him, to see it through. From the likes of Maria Shriver[14]—the wife of California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger (most famously known as “The Terminator” in the blockbuster Hollywood Terminator films) who left a promising career in journalism—to Hillary Clinton—who put her own political aspirations on the back burner to stand by her husband throughout the course of his presidency—the story is all too familiar.In her public address during the press conference, Wendy Vitter, “a lawyer who left the workplace to raise four children and run her husband’s first congressional campaign from their . . . home” brought to the forefront a “dual persona—intrepid woman, steadfast wife” as she “oscillated between the two roles that have defined her adult life: the stern prosecutor who fearlessly faced down the cameras and the traditional wife who swallowed her pride, stood by a tomcatting husband and spoke ‘as a mother’ in asking the media to move off her lawn and leave her children alone (Moran, The Times-Picayune).” Wendy Vitter is a quiet reminder of faith and fidelity as she stands by Senator Vitter’s side in silence for the first half of the announcement. When she takes her place at the microphone after her husband concludes his own comments, she readily invokes the “family”, “priva[cy]”, “love”, commitment and “marriage”, and the “choice” of “forgive[ness]”, explaining:

We choose to work together as a family . . . When David and I dealt with this privately years ago, I forgave David, I made the decision to love him, and to recommit to our marriage. To forgive is not always the easy the choice, but it was, and is, the right choice for me.

Wendy Vitter’s unwavering stance demonstrates that, “indeed, when the going gets tough, having a tough spouse standing up for you (as opposed to standing weepy-eyed and red-nosed behind you) can be a major asset (Cottle, The Daily Beast).” In an article by journalist Kate Moran for The Times-Picayune, New Orleans’ daily newspaper, Moran observes:

In their choreographed pas de deux, David Vitter was sober and contrite as he expressed regret for violating the public’s trust. Wendy Vitter was defiant as she assumed the role of her husband’s chief apologist and defender—a performance that was all the more striking for the stunned and sad look that inhabited her face as her husband spoke of confession and marriage counseling . . . Wendy Vitter appeared not in a modest suit, but in a flattering wrap dress . . . She stood taller than her husband in a pair of low heels. She also wore a ‘journey of life’ pendant, with a column of diamonds each larger than the next, symbolizing how the bonds of love grow and deepen over time . . . Although Wendy Vitter predicted years ago that she would act more like Lorena Bobbitt[15] than Hillary Clinton if her husband strayed—‘If he does something like that, I’m walking away with one thing, and it’s not alimony, trust me,’ she said in 2000—observers who watched her statement last week said she never ceded an inch of her dignity in standing by the senator, whom she called her ‘best friend.’

Mara’s reporting swiftly brings to the forefront the reality of politico-wife-as-instrument, a corporeal catalyst for “transference of affect” (Ahmed, 91), demonstrating that “bodies take the shape of the very contact they have with objects and others” (Ahmed, 1). Wendy Vitter—both “object” (as political prop) and “other” (as female body) within the context of her husband’s public address—is a carefully curated foil to her husband’s showing of regret, symbolizing her husband’s family values in her delicate toeing of the line between the traditional archetypes of protective mother “on guard . . . outside [of] the home” (Ahmed, 69), and loyal wife, an embodiment of “feminine vulnerability” (Ahmed, 69) in action. With his wife at his side, a key accessory to ensuring what Ahmed calls a “happy” apology[16] (Ahmed, 115), Senator Vitter’s culpability is ameliorated, the relevancy—and in turn, the social currency—of indicting him for his past actions, weakened. Wendy Vitter’s presence shames the public for criticizing her husband’s actions, and shames the press for their dragging of private-life goings-on into the harsh light of the public realm. Senator Vitter expresses his commitment to contrition saying, “ . . . I have gotten up every morning committed to trying to live up to the important values we believe in,” presenting a thinly veiled challenge to his critics as he continues, saying, “If continuing to believe in and acknowledge those values causes some to attack me because of my past failings, well, so be it.”


[Fig. 5-12] From L-R: Mayor Kwame Kilatrick and wife, Carlita Kilpatrick, 2008.

[5] Mayor Kilpatrick’s remarks begin with him front and center.

[6] The camera eventually pans back to reveal that his wife, Carlita Kilpatrick, is sitting beside him.

[7] The camera zooms in, slowly cropping Carlita Kilpatrick out of the frame.

[8] At one point in Mayor Kilpatrick’s remarks, all that remains of his wife Carlita Kilpatrick is her right arm and shoulder.

[9] Mayor Kilpatrick and his wife each hold a single hand.

[10] As Mayor Kilpatrick apologizes to, and then introduces, Carlita Kilpatrick, she extends her other hand to meet his.

[11] Mayor Kilpatrick and Carlita Kilpatrick in a double hand-holding.

[12] As Carlita Kilpatrick begins her commentary, the camera slowly zooms in, cropping Mayor Kilpatrick out of the lens almost entirely.

 “Good evening, Detroit. I want to start tonight by saying to the citizens of this great city—I’m sorry.”

In January of 2008, Detroit Democrat Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, “once lauded as being the youngest African American to become mayor of a city”[18] came under public scrutiny via The Detroit Free Press when the publication “obtained records of text messages from 2003 to 2004 that prove[d] the Mayor lied under oath during a [previous] whistleblower’s trial”[19] and had furthermore also been having an affair with his chief of staff, a woman named Christine Beatty. That Beatty and Mayor Kilpatrick provided “false testimony” resulted in fines and jail time for both parties, and a dragging of Beatty and Kilpatrick through a very public process of humiliation under the hot lights of American media.

The apology, televised and broadcast live on WXYZ Channel 7 Detroit on January 30th, 2008 [Fig. 5-12], runs the length of nearly ten minutes and features both Mayor Kilpatrick and his wife Carlita Kilpatrick, who, like Senator Vitter and his wife, shares the task of addressing the public. Both Mayor Kilpatrick and Carlita Kilpatrick are dressed in suits—the mayor in a black suit and yellow tie, his wife in a boxy gray suit and pale blue shirt, unbuttoned at the neck. Whereas Wendy Vitter seizes control and captures attention by way of visual hierarchy with her height (her heels making her appear to be taller than Senator Vitter) and her selection of a figure-hugging wrap dress, Carlita Kilpatrick complements her husband’s attire with a near-exact replica of “power suit”, albeit a contrasting color. Though the initial camera shot frames the mayor’s face, when it pans back it becomes difficult to ignore that the two appear to have actively chosen to twin their attire for the occasion. The neutering of Carlita Kilpatrick’s corporeal femininity with this “cloak . . . of confidence” (Givhan, Chicago Tribune) from the neck down is clear—though the mayor’s wife sits squarely in her seat with her hair neatly highlighted and styled, her face appropriately made up for a televised spot, Carlita Kilpatrick presents a stark contrast to Wendy Vitter’s version of loyal wife. The non-display of Carlita Kilpatrick’s figure sends a clear message: sexuality is not what will be peddled in this announcement. While Wendy Vitter steps into the foreground in her speaking to the press, leaving her husband to become part of the televised backdrop, the Kilpatricks remain on equal footing, which leaves the responsibility of focusing our attention on either the mayor, or his wife, to the selective zoom and pan of the camera work.

If Senator Vitter’s press conference places the “transference of affect” (Ahmed, 91) in central focus, Mayor Kilpatrick’s deployment of apology hones in on “embarrassment” as a key aspect of “social organization” (Goffman, Interaction Ritual, 97), begging the question “By whom is the embarrassing incident caused? To whom is it embarrassing? For whom is this embarrassment felt?” (Goffman, Interaction Ritual, 99) And, what is more—where is it felt? Is there a site-specificity to the public processing of embarrassment? Does embarrassment have a place? Mayor Kilpatrick answers these questions, saying:

. . . I’m sorry for the embarrassment and the disappointment, the events of the past few days have caused you. For what you, as my supporters, many of you, have had to hear as you travel around our city to beauty shops, and barber shops, for what you’ve had to hear when you were in church this past Sunday . . . I truly apologize to each and every one of you individually, and to the whole city.

The proffering of this statement fingers the pervasive social nature of embarrassment and humiliation. Though Mayor Kilpatrick makes clear his acceptance of responsibility, through the invocation of local public spaces (“beauty shops”, “barber shops”, “church”) historically specific to the dissemination of news and gossip within African-American community—later noting, “I am the mayor. I made the mistake. I am accountable.”—what he apologies for first and foremost is the “embarrassment” and “disappointment” his actions have “caused” the “whole city” of Detroit. Through this rhetorical device, Kilpatrick swiftly and implicitly undercuts strands of his own acceptance of the burden of blame, and instead universalizes the experience by making the experience of “embarrassment” one that both him and his constituents share. Thus, the emotion of “embarrassment”, the public “blush” (Goffman, Interaction Ritual, 100), ultimately becomes a device that fosters a sense of intimacy, uniting the mayor with the citizens he addresses, rather than dividing them, in the creation of an atmosphere that suggests that perhaps everyone—the mayor, his wife, those watching the broadcast—are all “in it” together.

The comments of Carlita Kilpatrick, arriving at the near halfway mark of Mayor Kilpatrick’s address, further this construction of intimacy, and, in turn, the intimate public implied in the language of Mayor Kilpatrick’s remarks. Mayor Kilpatrick sets the stage for his wife, holding her right hand as the camera pans back and noting, “I am truly blessed and grateful that my wife is beside me tonight. She has some personal remarks of her own tonight.” Carlita Kilpatrick marks the start of her comments with an action first, extending her left hand to meet her right, creating an even V in the composition of the figures of herself and her husband, physical contact that gestures at and underlines a loyal bond of partnership between the two. She initially asserts a clear boundary, separating the public from herself and her family, alluding to the violations of their privacy and saying, “Our most intimate issues have been laid out for all to see, for all to comment on, for all to dissect and analyze. However, this private matter is between me, my husband, and God . . .” Here her language mirrors aspects of of Senator Vitter’s apology, bringing together herself, her “husband” and “God” under a single umbrella as the key negotiators within the storm of controversy at hand.

Carlita Kilpatrick quickly contradicts herself, however, as she builds on these initial remarks and works to shape her comments to suit the path Mayor Kilpatrick has laid out before her:

As his wife, I know how committed my husband is to the city of Detroit. I am asking the citizens of this city to be committed to him, and our family, and to the continued growth of our city.

Her consent to Mayor Kilpatrick’s strategic apology takes the form of a figurative extension of their own marital contract. In her invocation of “commit[ment]”, she lays out new strands of symbolic partnership—as she is committed to her husband, her husband is “committed to the city of Detroit”, and she further makes the request that “the citizens . . . be committed to” both her husband and her family, as well as to “the continued growth of [the] city.” Thus the language of both infidelity (an extension of “commitment” and therefore intimacy to those outside of the partnership of Mayor Kilpatrick and his wife, the “citizens of [the] city” themselves) and family-making (the “city” taking on characteristics of “family” growth via symbolic conception in the renewed “commit[ment]” between the city and the Mayor and the hope for the subsequent result in the continued “growth of [the] city”) become mobilizing agents. Carlita Kilpatrick turns the paradigm of adultery on its ear as her own remarks transform her into the “other woman”, underscoring that the primary partnership to be honored is between her husband and the city first, with her own partnership with Mayor Kilpatrick taking a supporting role. By making the “city” the third party in such a family affair, the character of mistress Christine Beatty as actor in Mayor Kilpatrick’s betrayal, and the production of this public disgrace, is dimmed. In the assembly of this new direction of future for the Kilpatrick family and their beloved city, Beatty is in turn squeezed out of the narrative, no match for a desirous Detroit, now forever wed to Carlita Kilpatrick and her roving husband.



[Fig. 13-18] From L-R: New York Governor Eliot Spitzer and wife, Silda Wall, 2008.

[13] Governor Spitzer takes the stage to begin his second apology and resignation speech.


[14] Governor Spitzer’s wife, Silda Wall (“Silda Wall Spitzer”) takes the stage, alongside her husband, wearing a scarf which complements the colors of the American flag immediately behind her.


[15] Silda Wall remains expressionless throughout the course of her husband’s remarks. Caption reads: “Spitzer: ‘I am deeply sorry that I did not live up to what was expected.’”


[16] Caption reads, “Spitzer: ‘I cannot allow my private failings’ to distract from work.’”


[17] Governor Spitzer folds up his notes as he concludes his comments.


[18] Wife Silda Wall silently takes the lead in guiding Governor Spitzer off-stage.

Democrat and New York Governor Eliot Spitzer presented two apologies within the public realm in March of 2008. On March 10th, on the heels of the exposure of a federal wire-tap in which the Governor was recorded making arrangements “ . . . to meet with a high-priced prostitute at a Washington hotel . . . ” (Hakim and Rashbaum, The New York Times), Spitzer stood before the press with his wife, Silda Wall, for their first broadcast one that lasted for a mere sixty-four seconds.[20] “More than 100 reporters, along with 30 television cameras and 20 still photographers, had awaited Mr. Spitzer’s announcement—originally scheduled for 2:15 p.m.—in a packed briefing room at the governor’s office at 633 Third Avenue. As the door opened, Mr. Spitzer had his arm around his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer; the two nodded and then strode forward together (Chan, The New York Times).” Yet despite probing questions from reporters present that day regarding the future status of his government post, it was not until two days later, on March 12th, 2008, when Governor Spitzer and his wife graced the stage for a second time [Fig. 13-18], that the two faced the presentation of public apology head-on, with the Governor alluding to his indiscretions and, in turn, announcing his pending resignation.

Whereas in the apologies of Louisiana Senator Vitter and Detroit Mayor Kilpatrick provide a platform for each of their wives to respectively voice their piece, the statement of regret from Governor Spitzer does not integrate wife Silda Wall in any way beyond the ingredient of her presence. Governor Spitzer arrives on-camera several seconds in advance of his wife, who joins him briefly thereafter. The initial camera shot shows Governor Spitzer to the right of the frame, an American flag at his left. When Wall steps on stage, the frame of the camera shot readjusts, showing Wall dressed in a modest black suit, a scarf tied around her neck that, in its primary colors of red, white, and blue, perfectly complements the nation’s flag behind her, “as if she were holding her emotions together for the sake of the Union (Givhan, The Chicago Tribune).” Little more than a standing prop at the side of Governor Spitzer, Wall remains still and expressionless, making neither eye contact nor physical contact with her husband throughout the duration of his remarks. Though Governor Spitzer acknowledges his wife (“In the past few days I have begun to atone for my private failings with my wife Silda, my children, and my entire family.”), there is no concrete indication of forgiveness—nor the “love and compassion” that the Governor claims Wall and their family have “shown” him—in the face she puts forward.[21] Lasting two minutes and forty seconds, at the end of his speech Governor Spitzer folds up his notes and is led off-camera and backstage by the hand of Wall who walks silently in front of him. Thus, Silda Wall’s blank face becomes a blank slate onto which an on-looking public can project their sentiment. Erving Goffman in his Interaction Ritual notes:

One’s own face and the face of others are constructs of the same order; it is the rules of the group and the definition of the situation which determine how much feeling one is to have for face and how this feeling is to be distributed among the faces involved. (6)

In witnessing Wall’s non-expression, one can only wonder what lies behind such an excellent poker face. “Silda’s silence [initially] gave her a measure of grace. One could give her the benefit of the doubt and believe that she had stood on that podium with Eliot for some mysterious good reason unbeknownst to the rest of us (Kaysen,” Yet in 2010 Wall’s mask came down when she was quoted as saying to Fortune magazine editor and investigative reporter Peter Elkind: “The wife is supposed to take care of the sex. This is my failing; I wasn’t adequate (Masters, The Washington Post).” Wall, not taking a stand before the press, resurrects a vintage of gendered sentimentality, one that would befit the stereotype of a 1950s housewife; though her voice is forgone, her silent presence speaks volumes, an “opt[ing] out” that follows in the trend of history of women “who quit their jobs to tend to their husbands’ ambitions”: Silda Wall, a “graduate of Harvard Law School” (Hirschman, and successful lawyer and businesswoman thereafter, lost her voice along with her visions of professional grandeur, it seems. In this turn, Wall’s “face” seems be concealment of a “feeling” of failure, a non-expression to cloak a sense of non-delivery of the archetypal duties of a “good wife”—or, in this case, a good wife of a professional politico—Wall’s silence is a symbol of her deference to her husband, perhaps perversely indicative of her own public remorse at not participating in the fantasy of what Governor Spitzer delicately codes in his resignation speech as his “private failings”.


[Fig. 17-20] Congressman Anthony Weiner, 2011. The many faces of “Weinergate.”








On June 6th, 2011 [Fig. 17-20] , U.S. Democratic House Representative Congressman Anthony Weiner[24] came forward to apologize for the sexting scandal that infamously came to be known as “Weinergate.” Congressman Weiner had used the social media platform of Twitter on May 27th, 2011 to send sexually explicit photos of himself to “Gennette Cordova . . . a 21-year-old student at Whatcom Community College in [Seattle, Washington]” (Brunner, The Seattle Times)—to whom the Congressman had formerly been a complete stranger—thereby inciting what was dubbed by some as “the first big social media political sex scandal (Bradley, The Huffington Post).” Conservative blogger Andrew Brietbart “ . . . provided the primary source material that made the story one of the most heavily covered on the cable newscasts . . . He shared some of the more compromising pictures with . . . [news organization ABC,] which ran with the story (Muñoz-Temple,” Congressman Weiner initially circumnavigated the accusations, stating in an interview with MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow on June 1st, 2011:

Maybe it did start being a photo of mine and now looks something different or maybe it is from another account . . . Or could have been a photo that was taken out of context or was changed and manipulated in some way . . . People get hacked all the time and it happened to me, I don’t think it is the end of the world. This is what life is like in the world of social media and I will still be using Twitter as I think it helps me do my job.[25]

Yet, despite this attempt at skirting culpability, on June 16th, 2011, ten days after his public apology, Congressman Weiner, under intense scrutiny, governmental pressure, and public criticism, announced his resignation.

Weiner’s wife is the highly visible Huma Abedin, an American deputy chief of staff and aide to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. During the course of Weiner’s apology on June 6th, 2011, Abedin was nowhere to be found, despite Congressman Weiner opening his comments “to express [his] apologies [first] to [his] wife and family.” Congressman Weiner continued by extending his apology to “ . . . anyone who was misled—all of you who were misled—people who I lied to, I have an apology for all of them”, though clearly hesitant to designate to whom, specifically, he is apologizing to. When prompted by a reporter who insists, “But not specifically for him [Andrew Breitbart], not an apology?” Congressman Weiner replies with reluctance: “Look, I believe that everyone deserves an apology here . . . I apologize to Andrew Breitbart,[26] I apologize to the many other members of the media that I misled. I apologize first and foremost to my wife, and to my family.” When asked about the whereabouts of Abedin by a member of the press, Congressman Weiner’s response is pithily curt —“She’s not here.” Congressman Weiner elaborates later on, reporting to the press on Abedin’s position regarding the matter at hand: “ . . . I have a loving wife . . . [My wife, Huma Abedin] was not happy . . . she told me as much . . . and she’s very disappointed . . . and she also told me that she loves me and that she wanted us to pull through this.”

In this final apology, the figure of the wife is removed from the frame entirely. With Abedin absent and therefore invisible, Congressman Weiner takes on a sort of ventriloquism, speaking on the behalf of his partner. Here, Weiner assumes the role of both husband and wife, performing his own penance and acting as his own foil, all at once. He stumblingly executes alone what Senator Vitter and Wendy Vitter, or Mayor Kilpatrick and Carlita Kilpatrick, present as a united pair. Whereas previously the Vitters and Kilpatricks split responsibility for public apology down gender lines—the husband tending to the political, the wife undertaking the responsibility of speaking on the personal—Congressman Weiner’s apology toes no such divide. Though not present for her husband’s comments, Abedin (unlike the wives of Vitter, Kilpatrick, and Spitzer) remains very much so in the public eye with a career independent of, and therefore not impacted by, his victories nor his transgressions. Abedin’s absence, and her avoidance of the professional pitfall typical of a politician’s wife (abandoning career in the interest of supporting the campaign of her partner), makes her the exception to the rule in navigating the identity of the female foil within the realm of political apology. Congressman Vitter is therefore the one that ultimately echoes the lyrics of Tammy Wynette’s 1968 hit song, standing by Abedin’s man—himself—amidst the flurry and flash of his own televised apology.

Erving Goffman delineates the process of upkeep, as tied to the maintenance of one’s public image, with the term “face-work” (Goffman, Interaction Ritual, 5). He explains:

The term face may be defined as the positive social value a person effectively claims for himself by the line others assume he has taken during a particular contact. Face is an image of self delineated in terms of approved social attributes—albeit an image that others may share, as when a person makes a good showing for his profession or religion by making a good showing for himself[, a setting of public/social example] . . . a person’s attachment to a particular face, coupled with the ease with which disconfirming information can be conveyed by himself and others, provides one reason why he finds that participation in any contact with others is a commitment. (5-6)

It is the inconsistency and, in turn, the disintegration of a politician’s “face” that catalyzes the need for open apology, the apology signifying a reassertion of moral code, an attempt to make right the undesirable showing of a “wrong face” (8) within the public realm. In comparing Goffman’s “corrective process” (22)—the process undertaken by a person looking to restore the construction of their public image in the interest of “saving face” (39)—of “challenge, offering, acceptance, and thanks” (22), with Victor Turner’s theory of performance—which cites “Breach—Crisis—Redressive action—Reintegration”[28] as the four primary components of performance—one can see distinct parallels. While Goffman’s “corrective process” maps out the stages of an individual out in the world, Turner charts the steps of a performer within a performance. Each of the two processes, when juxtaposed, become a translation and mirror for the other: “breach” and “challenge”, “offering” and “crisis”, “acceptance” and “redressive action”, “thanks” and “reintegration”. In these reflections, a merging begins, contrasting that which is asserted as a site of theater with the realm of reality—and between body-as-performer and body-as-politician—blurring divisions and highlighting the difficulty of maintaining distinctions between these sites and identities. The wives of the aforementioned politicians are inescapably positioned as “juxtapolitical” (Berlant, 3), performing in proximity to the political arena, but never fully integrated within it. She finds her place somewhere between “offering” / “crisis” and “acceptance” / “redressive action”, bettering the meat of an apology with the projection of her faithful presence, yet leaving the initial offense (“breach” / “challenge”) and, ultimately, the reconciliation (“thanks” / “reintegration”), to her husband to manage and claim credit for. Thus the “complaint” (Berlant) of a wife’s “sentimentality” (Berlant, 35) remains ever-present, her physicality little more than a glass plane intended to provide a reflective surface for her husband’s image. As long as the “face” of a political wife remains intact, it seems, the politician at hand does not have to worry about the slipping—or shattering—of his own mask.

Works Cited:

Ahmed, Sara. The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Edinburgh University Press Ltd. 2004.

Berlant, Lauren. The Female Complaint: The Unfinished Business of Sentimentality in American Culture. Duke University Press. 2008.

Bertha, Mike. “A Roundup of Politicians Apologizing for Sexts and Affairs.” November 9 2012. Online. Accessed: March 2013.

Bradley, William. “Weinergate’s Lasting Impact: The First Big Social Media Political Sex Scandal.” The Huffington Post. June 7 2011. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

Brunner, Jim. “Bellingham student embroiled in Rep. Weiner Twitter scandal.” The Seattle Times. June 1 2011. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

Camus, Albert. The Stranger. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. 1946.

Chan, Sewell. “‘I Apologize to the Public’.” The New York Times. March 10 2008. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

Cushman, Fiery, Liane Young, Joshua D. Greene. “Multi-system Moral Psychology.” The Moral Psychology Handbook. Oxford University Press. 2010.

Givhan, Robin. “Dressed for public distress.” The Chicago Tribune. June 23 2011. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

Goffman, Erving. Interaction Ritual: Essays in Face-to-Face Behavior. New material this edition copyright 2005 by Transaction Publishers. Original copyright 1967 by Erving Goffman. Fifth printing 2011.

Goffman, Erving. Relations in Public. New York: Basic Books. 1971.

Hakim, Danny and William K. Rashbaum. “Spitzer Is Linked to Prostitution Ring.” The New York Times. March 10 2008. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

Masters, Brooke. “Review of Peter Elkind’s ‘Rough Justice: The Rise and Fall of Eliot Spitzer’.” The Washington Post. Sunday, April 25 2010. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

Moran, Kate. “Wendy Vitter has never been shy about standing her ground.” The Times-Picayune. July 21 2007. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

Muñoz-Temple, Amanda. “The Man Behind Weiner’s Resignation.” June 16 2011. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

Rood, Justin. “‘Hustler’ Call May Have Prompted Vitter Admission.” July 10 2007. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Theory. Routledge. 2003.

Smith, Nick. I Was Wrong: The Meanings of Apologies. Cambridge University Press. 2008.


[1] To watch Tammy Wynette perform this song, visit:

[2] Page 57. See Works Cited.

[3] “Apology.” Online Etymology Dictionary. Online. Accessed: April 2011.

[4] “Apology.” Collins English Dictionary — Complete & Unabridged 10th Edition. HarperCollins Publishers. Online. Accessed: April 2011 via

[5] To expand on this: “ . . . the common usage of apology . . . [has] drifted from a general notion of a defense to a particular kind of defense in the form of an excuse . . . Thus . . . [the] etymology of apology pulls in two directions. On the one hand, we associate apologizing with repentance, confession, remorse, blame, and moral defenselessness. On the other hand, a considerable period of history understood the practice precisely as defense.” (Smith, 8) See Works Cited.

[6] “Forgiveness.” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. Online. Accesed: April 2011.

[7] To expand on Berlant’s construct of “sentimentality”: “ . . . the humanization strategies of sentimentality always traffic in cliché, the reproduction of a person as a thing, and thus indulge in the confirmation of the marginal subject’s embodiment of inhumanity on the way to providing the privileged with heroic occasions of recognition, rescue, and inclusion. In this view, sentimentality from the top down softens risks to the conditions of privilege by making obligations to action mainly ameliorative, a matter not of changing the fundamental terms that organize power, but of following the elevated claims of vigilant sensitivity, virtue, and conscience.” (Berlant, 35)

[8] An allusion to a lyric from the song “Fuck the Pain Away” by the musical artist Peaches, from the album The Teaches of Peaches, first released in September of 2000.

[9] “Woman Convicted in Washington Escort Case.” The New York Times. April 16 2008. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Hustler is a monthly pornographic magazine published in the United Stated, founded in 1974 by Larry Flynt.

[12] “Scandal-linked senator breaks a week of silence.” July 17 2007. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

[13] Allen, Kevin. “5 wives who stayed—and 5 who didn’t—after political sex scandals.” June 8 2011. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

[14] Chatel, Amanda. “Maria Shriver Gave Up Her Career And Now Look What Happened.” May 17 2011. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

[15] American citizen Lorena Bobbitt gained notoriety for an incident in 1983 where she severed her husband John Bobbitt’s penis with a knife during a conflict.

[16] A “happy” apology, versus “unhappy” apology, distinguished by Ahmed as two different types of apology, where “certain conditions [either] are [or are] not met.” (Ahmed, 115)

[17] A reference to the 1957 film An Affair to Remember, starring Cary Grant and Deborah Kerr and directed by Leo McCarey.

[18] “Kwame Kilpatrick Text Messages With Christine Beatty Leading To Jail.” October 28 2008. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

[19] Ibid.

[20] The full text of this brief apology is as follows: “Good afternoon. Over the past nine years, eight years as attorney general and one as governor, I’ve tried to uphold a vision of progressive politics that would rebuild New York and create opportunity for all. We sought to bring real change to New York and that will continue. Today, I want to briefly address a private matter. I have acted in a way that violates my obligations to my family and that violates my—or any—sense of right and wrong. I apologize first, and most importantly, to my family. I apologize to the public, whom I promised better. I do not believe that politics in the long run is about individuals. It is about ideas, the public good and doing what is best for the State of New York. But I have disappointed and failed to live up to the standard I expected of myself. I must now dedicate some time to regain the trust of my family. I will not be taking questions. Thank you very much. I will report back to you in short order. Thank you very much.” (Chan, The New York Times)

[21] “Full Text of Spitzer Resignation.” The New York Times. March 12 2008. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

[22] An allusion to The Real Housewives Bravo reality TV series phenomena.

[23] A little social media humor here. The use of “#” as a prefix to “Weinergate” alludes to the process of topic-tracking on Twitter via the use of the “#”, commonly referred to within social media vernacular as a “hashtag”.

[24] Congressman Weiner served New York’s 9th congressional district.

[25] “’Maybe it started out being a photo of mine’: Weinergate continues as Congressman admits Twitter photo could have been one of his that was ‘taken out of context’.” June 2011. Online. Accessed: April 2013.

[26] Andrew Breitbart called for an apology from Weiner during this time as he felt that Weiner’s later public suggestion that perhaps his Twitter account had been “hacked” inferred that Brietbart was culpable for participating in this violation of the Congressman’s privacy. Brietbart had not obtained the original photograph via illegal hacking and for this reason felt particularly slandered by Weiner’s initial denial.

[27] An allusion to the 1997 American action thriller “Face/Off” which starred Nicolas Cage, as a terrorist, and John Travolta, as an FBI Agent. In the film, the two undergo face transplant surgery with the interest of assuming the other’s physical appearance.

[28] To expand on this process: “1. Breach of regular, norm-governed social relations . . . 2. Crisisduring which . . . there is a tendency for the breach to widen . . . 3. Redressive action [ranging] from personal advice and informal mediation or arbitration to formal judicial and legal machinery and, to resolve certain kinds of crisis or legitimate other modes or resolution, to the performance of public ritual . . . Redress, too, has its liminal features, its being “betwixed and between,” and, as such, furnishes a distanced replication and critique of the events leading up to and composing the “crisis.” This replication may be in the rational idiom of a ritual process . . . 4. The final phase . . . consists either of the reintegration of the disturbed social group or of the social recognition and legitimization of irreparable schism between contesting parties. (Turner 1974: 37-41).” (Schechner, 187)

About the Author:

Legacy Russell is a writer and curator. Born and raised in New York City, she is the Associate Curator of Exhibitions at The Studio Museum in Harlem. Recent exhibitions include Projects 110 : Michael Armitage, organized with Thelma Golden and The Studio Museum in Harlem at MoMA (2019); Dozie Kanu : Function (2019), Chloë Bass : Wayfinding (2019), Radical Reading Room (2019) at The Studio Museum in Harlem; and MOOD : Studio Museum Artists in Residence 2018-19 (2019) at MoMA PS1. Russell’s ongoing academic work and research focuses on gender, performance, digital selfdom, internet idolatry, and new media ritual. She is Visual Arts Editor of Apogee Journal, a Contributing Editor for BOMB Magazine online, and a Senior Editor at Berfrois. Russell is the recipient of the Thoma Foundation 2019 Arts Writing Award in Digital Art and a 2020 Rauschenberg Residency Fellow. Her first book, Glitch Feminism, is forthcoming from Verso Books in Fall 2020. | Instagram: @ellerustle | Twitter: @legacyrussell.