‘Homewrecker’: the media and the Other Woman

Article by Jay Daniel Thompson /
Overland /
July 27, 2018  /
Click here to view original /

Who is Vikki Campion?

According the doyens of domesticity at The Australian Women’s Weekly, she’s the woman responsible for ruining Barnaby Joyce’s marriage. Joyce’s estranged wife, Natalie, told the magazine that she called Campion a ‘home-wrecking wh***’ when they met by chance, and suggested that Campion ‘relentlessly’ pursued’ her husband.

Campion, on the other hand, has painted herself the victim. In a widely publicised interview, the former political staffer told Sunday Night: ‘You can’t help who you fall in love with.’ Campion also alleged that she’d been pressured by several of Joyce’s colleagues to abort their child.

One thing is certain: in the eyes of the Australian media, Campion is definitely the Other Woman. This depiction provides an ideal opportunity to rethink that notorious female archetype, and in particular, the odious assumptions about female (and male) sexuality that underpin it.

The Campion and Joyce story is also a useful case study because it highlights the conservatism of many media outlets, which still privilege traditional – that is, heterosexual and monogamous – marriage. This is particularly striking given that traditional marriage does not have the kind of hegemony that it once did.

First, let’s look at the stereotype of the Other Woman as ‘homewrecker’ – an allegation typically levelled at women who become involved with married men. Political scientist Lauren Rosewarne points out that such women are commonly framed (by the media, for example) as the ones who instigated the adulterous relationship. She quotes Lyn Mikel Brown’s observation: ‘Good girls keep boys’ arousal in check; girls who don’t are sluts.’

Rosewarne notes that the woman who engages in sex ‘outside of a committed relationship’ may (according to a certain sexist mindset) be thought of as exhibiting a ‘lack of restraint as well as unfeminine greed’. The Other Woman rejects the role of faithful wife, and in doing so, robs another woman of her chance to be a wife.

These attitudes are premised on the assumption that women should be asexual, or at least, sexually active only within the confines of a monogamous heterosexual relationship. These are the kinds of relationships that Joyce has publicly championed during his time in parliament, most notably when articulating his opposition to marriage equality.

As Rosewarne notes, this framing of the Other Woman as femme fatale is premised on the assumption that ‘women are responsible for men’s sexual behaviour’. Such an assumption has long been used to justify men’s sexual violence, and, consequently, has been hotly disputed by feminists.

So is Campion, in fact, the victim in this lurid saga? Her allegations of being pressured to abort her child are unverified, but she was certainly treated shabbily by The Daily Telegraph. In February, the News Corp tabloid broke the news of the Joyce-Campion affair with a front page photograph of a heavily pregnant Campion and the accompanying headline ‘Bundle of Joyce’. The cover featured a much smaller shot of Joyce, his signature Akubra in place.

As I’ve argued elsewhere, this front page is an ethical nightmare that transforms Campion into a body of evidence – evidence of Joyce’s adultery, and therefore, his eschewal of the ‘family values’ that he has long endorsed.

Furthermore, Campion was publicly short-changed by Joyce. In March, shortly after the revelations of the affair were made public, Joyce told reporters that his child’s paternity was a ‘grey area’. He was effectively suggesting that his pregnant paramour was highly sexually active – the assumption being that this was a bad thing. Joyce also seemed to be suggesting that he could be exonerated for his infidelity should his responsibility for the child’s conception be ruled out.

In fact, Campion told Sunday Night viewers that she was ‘deeply hurt’ by the ‘grey area’ remark. She also refused to corroborate Joyce’s suggestion (which a friend of mine has accurately described as ‘gaslighting’) that she had, in fact, agreed with him to utter those words.

Equally, we must avoid casting women in this kind of harsh spotlight as passive whipping girls. Yes, Campion has been the subject of name-calling, innuendo and intense public scrutiny. Yes, she was also once one of Joyce’s employees. This fact alone suggests the existence of a power imbalance between the pair.

These factors do not, however, mean that Campion has been without agency – or that wielding this agency (for example, in her relationship with her now ex-employer) is a negative. Perhaps she did pursue Joyce? Perhaps they pursued each other? As Joyce told Sunday Night, in one of his rare sage moments: ‘It takes two to tango.’

My point is this: conceiving of the so-called Other Woman, as vixen or victim, is pointless. These stereotypes say more about patriarchal assumptions surrounding female and male sexuality than they do about anything else.

It’s also worth asking why, exactly, the media fanfare surrounding Joyce and Campion’s affair came about. The hype can be attributed, in part, to Joyce’s hypocrisy. His inability to live by the heterosexual ‘family values’ he has long endorsed was always going to raise eyebrows, and attract the attention of readers and viewers.

But ultimately, the media fixation on Joyce and Campion is more about the continued reverence that certain Australian media outlets seem to have for traditional marriage – that is, heterosexual and monogamous, where the wife is assigned primarily to domestic duties and standing by her man. If traditional marriage was not still assumed to be the norm, this relationship would likely not have been regarded as remarkable. If traditional marriage was not still assumed to be the norm, this relationship wouldn’t have been used to sell newspapers, magazines and television programs.

This is a curious state of affairs, indeed, given that the hierarchies inherent within traditional marriage have, for decades, been critiqued, disputed and rejected. These critiques stem from political analyses that fermented during the feminist and gay liberation movements of the 1970s. But in recent years, there has even been affirmative mainstream media articles about polyamory and non-monogamous relationships. And, of course, same-sex marriage has been legalised in a number of countries.

Actually, queer theorist Annamarie Jagose might have hit the nail on the head back in 2012, when she speculated that demands to legalise same-sex marriage has served the function of propping up an outdated institution that had fallen on ‘tough times’, citing declining marriage rates, among other factors.

That, however, is the topic of another article.