The Postmodern Hester Prynne

meg ryan and russell crowe getty The Postmodern Hester PrynneOh, these naughty alpha males and their uncontrollable libidos! We’ve had a parade of powerful men in picture-perfect marriages, exposed as lying horndogs: John Edwards, Mark Sanford, Tiger Woods, Eliot Spitzer, now even (allegedly) Al Gore. And just look at their lovely, betrayed wives, each one “handling” the situation with her own brand of dignity.

It’s like some postmodern myth cycle, Zeus and Hera in a 21st century of zoom-lens pap photos and manic dirty texts that live forever courtesy of AT&T. We can’t, or won’t, stop consuming the details. (Mr. Gore said what to the masseuse about “releasing” his second chakra?) The narratives hurtle from the first mistress revelation in The Enquirer or a trashy blog to-a million or so Huffington Post comments later-the wife’s book deal and public “healing”; at the moment, we have forever-shocked Elizabeth Edwards in a second media push as her book, Resilience, comes out in paperback.

As the recession grinds on, there must be something primally reassuring in these stories of male infidelity and wronged female virtue among the elite. The über-cheaters give us evidence that entitled males still exist, are still in charge, while sober, de-eroticized women-even nubile, beautiful, ultra-blonde Elin Nordegren seems willingly desexualized-safeguard The Family. “The saddest part for me,” Ms. Edwards told Larry King last week, “is that I know I’ll never again be held in that way … with passion.” Meanwhile, Tiger has a new girlfriend already; Sanford is working on “rekindling things” with his Argentine lover.

The IM relationship, the ‘emotional affair,’ the ‘work husband’; there is perhaps less boning in a hotel, more pouring out of her heart and dropping erotically charged lines to someone who is not her husband.

These tales of hookers and half-hookers and gold diggers and fame diggers and “soul mates”-it all presents itself as censure, but the sheer volume of media, the obsessive attention to it, represents a kind of cheering on. “We really want to believe that powerful men have harems or the equivalent,” as a prominent female West Village writer of 50 put it to me, “because it’s reassuring us that boys will be boys. The alternative is unthinkable.”

She went on to speculate that famous male serial cheaters want to be exposed. “I think being held up as the bad (yet randy!) boy in front of a nation is kind of a turn-on for some of them. A lot of men want to think of themselves as naughty, and of course they know that other men will envy them, which is one reason, no doubt, that they are so ambitious in the first place.”