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The Other Woman Trope - Demystifying The Villain

Is the “Other Woman” the villain of someone else’s story… or the misrepresented protagonist of her own? For hundreds of years, the Other Woman has been a figure of fear and hatred for wives and girlfriends alike. But in more recent depictions, from Taylor Swift songs to Sex and the City, the other woman has been humanized, showing that she’s really just another girl looking for someone to love and understand her.

TRANSCRIPT

Is the “other woman” the villain of someone else’s story or the misrepresented protagonist of her own? For hundreds of years, the Other Woman has been a figure of fear and hatred for wives and girlfriends alike. She’s a threat to the traditional family unit, who must be stopped, the whore to the wife’s Madonna, with sexual talents and methods of seduction that can tempt even the most devoted family man away from the marital bed, always wanting something she can’t have, often motivated to “steal” a married man for his money or connections rather than for true love.

Crystal: “A woman never steals another woman’s husband. They usually go willingly.”

Mary: “Sounds like you have a lot of experience in that area.” - The Women (2008)

Puzzlingly, it often seems like the Other Woman is the only person who can strip a man of his agency entirely, when the rest of the time, he’s in control. So is this really a legitimate way of looking at any woman? In more recent depictions, from Taylor Swift songs to Sex and the City, the other woman has been humanized, and we start to see just how blurry these questions of who’s entitled to someone and which person is the other can really get. Yet the Other Woman remains a powerful—often hated—taboo. Here’s our take on The Other Woman on-screen—and how she’s really just another girl looking for someone to love and understand her.

The Other Woman as a Villain

Throughout history, mistresses have been a cultural symbol of power. Royalty, aristocracy, and politicians notoriously kept, and continue, to keep them. Many historic royal mistresses, such as Charles II’s lover Nell Gwyn, are more famous today than their partners’ queens. The mistress as a status symbol has continued into more recent times, too; a 1980s study showed that the richer a man was, the more likely he was to have an affair—over 70% of men who earned above $60,000 had cheated on their wives. Examples of women who cheat track with this, too, as demonstrated in the recent remake of Scenes from a Marriage and the movie The Other Man, where wealthy, high-powered women seek romance outside of their marriage.

Mira: “I fell in love with someone. He’s the CEO of an Israeli startup that we’re buying out.” - Scenes from a Marriage

Historically, though, the exploration of affairs on-screen has mostly focused on men cheating on their wives. And despite the fact that it’s the husband’s choice to cheat, the Other Woman is often portrayed as the main problem—because while the husband is the one who actually breaks a vow, it’s as if the Other Woman is breaking an unspoken vow of sisterhood. On top of that, she’s portrayed as irresistible, and hellbent on destroying a marriage—and what husband isn’t powerless to refuse that? In the original version of The Women, we get an archetypal portrayal by Joan Crawford as Crystal Allen—she is soulless, does unconscionable things just to get at a man’s money, and admits she doesn’t love him.

Crystal: “You’ve got everything that matters. You’ve got the name, the position, the money.”

Mary: “My husband’s love happens to mean more to me than those things.”

Crystal: “Oh, can the sob stuff, Mrs. Haines.” - The Women (1939)

This gold-digging aspect often seems to be the motivation in older portrayals of the Other Woman, although a really early example occurs in 1915 silent film A Fool There Was, in which Theda Bara plays a vamp whose sole desire is to ruin mens’ lives—not for gain, but just for the fun of it.

The Mafia’s relationship with mistresses is famous, as it’s been explored in iconic movies and shows like Goodfellas, Casino, and The Sopranos. This is a strong, almost systemic elicitation of the Madonna-whore dichotomy of the wife and the Other Woman, showing the men want to keep the domestic and sexual parts of their lives separate. But it never seems to end very well with the mistresses, or comares, who always want more. And despite it being acknowledged that this is the way Mafia men behave, it understandably devastates the wives.

Traditionally, though, the Mafia mistress has a different role to other women. In Italian culture, the wife is “above all others”—she’s the Madonna incarnate—and as such, made men can’t share their criminal activity with their wives for fear of implicating them. The comare is not just a beautiful mistress—although her beauty is highly prized—but she can also be a confidante and, according to Giovanni Fiandaca, the author of Women and the Mafia: Female Roles in Organized Crime Structures, mistresses’ homes are sometimes even used as safe houses for criminal activity.

And these arrangements definitely don’t go both ways for the genders. When Carmela falls in love with Furio in The Sopranos, it’s a matter of life and death—despite Tony’s constant philandering, he would certainly kill Furio for getting together with Carmela. So the other man doesn’t always have it so easy on-screen, either—he can be imperiled, like Furio, or obscene, like Julian, the man Bridget’s mom leaves her dad for in Bridget Jones’s Diary.

Still, the other man is a rarer character than the Other Woman, who’s a huge presence in film noir and other early movies. In these explorations, it’s always important that the other women are punished for being harlots. Maybe the ultimate example of this kind of comeuppance is Alex Forrest in Fatal Attraction—the original bunny boiler.

Alex: “You’re trying to move him into the country, and you’re keeping him away from me. And you’re playing ‘happy family.’” - Fatal Attraction

In the film’s finale, there’s a moment of redemption where the cheated-on wife, Beth, shoots Alex to death. This wasn’t the original ending—initially, Alex was supposed to kill herself and frame Dan for her murder. However, test audiences didn’t respond well to that storyline, because, as Glenn Close, the actress who played Alex, put it, the original ending was film-noir worthy, but the audience wanted something “more cathartic”—they needed Beth to get her revenge. Victory for the wife is a key tenet of many of these movies—essentially, an example of “good defeating evil.”

But why is the Other Woman portrayed as evil? One theory is that the Other Woman shatters our dreams of true love. One real-life example was the vilification of Angelina Jolie when she got together with Brad Pitt—who was married to Jennifer Aniston at the time. Jennifer, most famous for her role as Rachel on Friends, was always portrayed as a down-to-earth, girl-next-door type, and her marriage to Brad was a glossy realization of “America’s sweethearts.” Meanwhile, Angelina was painted as a vamp, known to be into darker sexual pursuits such as knife play and and carrying a vial of her ex-husband’s blood. It was like Brad was cheating on us, as the idea of the perfect marriage that we all had was discarded in favor of something the public perceived to be darker and less wholesome. Likewise, Marilyn Monroe’s rumored affair with JFK while he was married to Jackie was interpreted as a vamp versus virgin narrative. Marilyn was widely recognized as the sexiest woman of her era, while Jackie was portrayed by the press as prim and perfect. In Mad Men, the team tasked with creating a campaign for Playtex puts forward the idea that every woman was either a Marilyn or a Jackie. The reality, however, was more complex. Rather than proving this binary, Marilyn and Jackie were more alike than anyone cared to admit, and appeared to have had mutual respect for, or at least interest in, one another.

There are film and TV examples where we feel we’ve been cheated of the perfect couple by that irritating other woman, too. Derek and Meredith’s relationship being thwarted by Rose in Grey’s Anatomy and Ross and Rachel’s by Emily in Friends—these “other women” aren’t even mistresses, but they’re still disliked by audiences because they’re getting in the way of something viewers crave. Or when the wife or girlfriend who we really back is being cheated on, we get very villainized “other women” examples, like Lydia in Sliding Doors.

Lydia: “I wanted to see what this girl you seem to have no intention of leaving, despite the occasional pre-orgasmic suggestion that you are, has that is so unleavable.” - Sliding Doors

The Other Woman as Human

Often, the Other Woman isn’t just vilified—her life is literally deemed worthless. In The Great Gatsby, Tom’s mistress, Myrtle, is killed when his wife, Daisy, runs her over in a car, and Tom isn’t even affected—he only seems interested in covering it up. Likewise, mob shows and movies often explore how mistresses can be objectified, dehumanized, and treated as disposable. They might be murdered—as Giuseppina is by Dickie in The Many Saints of Newark, or Tracee is by Ralphie in The Sopranos—or they might threaten, or commit, suicide, as is the case with Tony’s girlfriends, Irina and Gloria.

But starting in the 2000s and 2010s, we saw a spate of film and TV portrayals that humanized the Other Woman—including two different movies called The Other Woman, as well as The Sweetest Thing, Enchanted, The Other Boleyn Girl, and 13 Going On 30. Even Gloria Trillo in The Sopranos could be sympathetic. One of the main purposes of this was to put the focus back on the cheating man, who is the actual person causing damage in his relationship. These movies are successful because it’s so rare to see men get their comeuppance for this sort of behavior in real life, and the truth is that the Other Woman often is vulnerable and lonely. She’s probably suffering thanks to the man’s behavior as well, and really needs people who like her in her life.

In the Sex and the City love triangle between Carrie, Big, and Natasha, Carrie is an example of the Other Woman who we’re invited to sympathize with because she’s the protagonist.

Charlotte: “You’re the other woman!”

Carrie: “I am not the other woman. I’m not. I mean…I know I am, but I am not that woman.” - Sex and the City

She was also the girlfriend to begin with, before Big met his wife, Natasha—a fact that gets at how, in reality, cheating frequently does involve exes, potentially blurring the lines in people’s minds as to who first belonged to whom. Viewers have spent seasons getting invested in Carrie’s love story with Big, so when prim, perfect-seeming Natasha comes along, we don’t root for her. In the sequel series And Just Like That…, Natasha is humanized in a way she never was initially—we get a chance to see how much it hurt her, and also she acknowledges that, because the Carrie and Big love story predated hers, she felt like the Other Woman.

Natasha: “I’ll never understand why he ever married me when he was always in love with you.” - And Just Like That…

Meanwhile, in Scandal, the writers go one step further and we’re encouraged to actively root against the wife because we so want Olivia and Fitz to be together. The identification with the Other Woman could even become a little flippant like in Ariana Grande’s 2019 song, “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored”—though the video playfully suggests Grande’s character is actually interested in the girlfriend (or, because the girlfriend looks like her, it may be a comment on self-love).

Sometimes, movies from the 2000s and 2010s era show us the Other Woman without even articulating that that’s what she is. In Bridget Jones’s Diary, we never explicitly hear from Mark Darcy that he’s seeing Natasha, but his family are all pretty convinced that the two of them are going to get married. So, if we break it down, in this instance, the audience’s beloved Bridget is actually the Other Woman—but we barely notice because the story leads us to feel she and Mark are predestined. Plus, Natasha is haughty and unpleasant, so we don’t mind when she loses her man to down-to-earth, normal Bridget. Actually, there’s a real-life reason why Bridget doesn’t come across as a clear-cut Other Woman. In life, often, the category isn’t so apparent; it’s often not the case that one person is the “primary” partner and the other is the “other” woman. There’s an example of this in Game of Thrones, when Tyrion marries Sansa, although he is already in love with Shae. And sometimes, the Other Woman doesn’t even know that she is the Other Woman until unfortunate circumstances bring her and the wife together—which is the case in Shiva Baby. This also kind of happens to Bridget when she discovers Daniel with the American woman, Lara, who seems like the annoying woman but turns out to be his fiancé, and it’s unclear which relationship has been the earlier or primary one in Daniel’s life.

Bridget: “You haven’t only just met her.”

Daniel: “No. No, I got to know her pretty well when we were in the New York office together…We’re engaged.” - Bridget Jones’s Diary

In extreme situations, people can become the “other” partner without even knowing it—like in Cast Away, when Chuck is stranded on a deserted island and declared legally dead, so his girlfriend Kelly, eventually, starts a family with another man, only to be shocked when Chuck returns. And when it comes to queer relationships, for much of our history, a same-sex partner had to be the “other” person in society’s eyes, hidden in secrecy, even if the relationship predates either person’s marriage. This can lead to the feeling, almost, that the wife or husband is the “other person.”

2005’s Brokeback Mountain, about the forbidden love between two gay men in the 1960s, centers the romance between two characters who do go on to marry women and become the “other man” in each other’s lives (at least in their wives’ view), but in their hearts, no one could ever be primary over each other. Even on Friends, while Ross was hurt and continues to take it personally that his wife Carol cheated with “other woman” Susan, clearly, Carol and Susan were in love, starting a forever partnership, and Carol’s infidelity was an unfortunate step on the path toward her honestly understanding her orientation and true love.

Music is a medium where it’s easy to identify with the narrator, no matter where they fall in a love triangle, because you’re immersed in the singer’s emotion and less preoccupied with judging them. In Melanie Martinez’s “Pacify Her,” the song’s narrator is an unrepentant homewrecker who articulates exactly this blurriness of what makes someone belong to someone else. She sings, “Someone told me ‘stay away from things that aren’t yours’ / But was he yours, if he wanted me so bad?” In Dolly Parton’s iconic “Jolene,” she pleads with a potential Other Woman to have mercy, and not to take her man “just because [she] can.” On Taylor Swift’s album, Folklore, she narrates a love triangle through three songs—“Cardigan,” “Betty,” and “August,” with “Cardigan” narrated by the girl who is cheated on, “Betty” by the cheating guy, and “August” by the “other” girl. Swift herself says that the protagonist of “August” isn’t a “bad girl,” claiming:

Taylor Swift: “She was trying to seem cool and seem like she didn’t care because that’s what girls have to do, and she thought they had something very real…And then he goes back to Betty.” - Folklore: The Long Pond Studio Sessions

Still, that sympathy for the other woman hasn’t always held fast for Taylor: she released the track “Better than Revenge” in response to rumors that Joe Jonas cheated on her, viciously shaming the “other woman.” And it is really understandable for the scorned wife or partner to be angry at the person they perceive to be destroying their happiness—especially if that other person knowingly disrespects the marriage or partnership, and even more so if the other person is a trusted friend. It’s the reason why viewers were so shocked when Cassie from Euphoria slept with her best friend Maddy’s ex, Nate. And contemporary narratives like The Gilded Age still employ the character who’s conniving to steal a married man’s affections as a one-dimensional villain.

Turner: “Haven’t you ever wanted a woman who thinks only of you? Mrs. Russell has many qualities, but she has her own campaign to wage in the world. She has no time for yours.” - The Gilded Age

Yet most of these stories make it clear that, ultimately, it’s the partner in the relationship who’s accountable for the choice of whether to be unfaithful or not. In Agnes Varda’s feminist movie Le Bonheur, the mistress is the reason for the wife’s suicide, and then the mistress literally just replaces the wife in the family. And ultimately, this reveals an underlying coldness in the husband and how he regards these women as implements for his idyllic “happy” life.

The Other Woman’s Multitudes

It’s satisfying to watch portrayals that bring humanity and sympathy to the Other Woman and the wife or girlfriend character, but there’s something even those 2000s movies miss about the reality of relationships. The fact is that it’s not possible to confine anyone to a label. The cheating man may be deeply conflicted, or terribly unhappy; the other woman may be desperately seeking love, or a sense of self-worth—as we see with Cassie.

Nate: “Aren’t you afraid people are gonna look down on ya?”

Cassie: “At least I’m loved.” - Euphoria

Psychoanalyst Herbert Strean (2000) claims that “happy people don’t cheat,” so there’s often a deep-seated reason why marriages fall apart due to infidelity.

The Other Woman also takes on a different meaning today, when people are more likely to have open relationships. Approximately 4% of adults are in open marriages—although of course, polygamy and polyamory are situations that should only be entered into with the express consent and understanding of all parties.

The fourth season of The Crown portrays the real-life love triangle between Prince Charles, Princess Diana, and Camilla Parker Bowles.

Diana, Princess of Wales: “Well, there were three of us in this marriage, so it was a bit crowded.” - BBC

To Diana, her husband’s devotion to this “Other Woman” is a burden that dooms their marriage, while, in Charles’ mind, Camilla is his rightful love, because he’s loved her for many years and his family are in the wrong for preventing their marriage. The Crown again illustrates this murky question of whom one belongs to when you consider a person’s history with an ex or the reasons out of someone’s control why a relationship might have ended. But it ultimately makes Diana out to be more of a victim than Charles in this situation, because he wasn’t above board with Diana. She wasn’t informed, as a very young girl marrying a prince, what she was really getting into.

Portrayals like these—and even older ones—show that it’s really the tiptoeing and secrecy that’s so unhealthy and sinister. There wouldn’t be such a thing as “another woman” if we all articulated our feelings better, discussed our relationships and desires more openly. The Duchess shows a real-life, odd realization of this when the Duke and Duchess of Devonshire come to an agreement that his mistress can live with them. It’s not that this arrangement isn’t painful for the Duchess at first—the patriarchal setup of the time means she is unable to be with the love of her life, after all—but she grows to love them both and gives them her blessing to marry after her death. In Friends, we see that Joey’s mom actually benefits from his dad cheating on her, because he treats her better, and that means she’s happy to turn a blind eye to his infidelity.

Gloria: “Do you remember how your father used to be? Always yelling, always yelling, nothing made him happy. And he’s been more attentive, he’s been loving, it’s like every day’s our anniversary.” - Friends

It makes us question whether we could accept another woman, if the marriage improved—or whether, if we acknowledge that we aren’t necessarily always attracted to our spouses as the years go on, we might still maintain a relatively good marriage. In The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, after Midge Maisel finds out her husband Joel cheated, she gets hours of comedy out of Penny Pan. More importantly, the loss of Joel to his mistress is part of turning her into another woman—a different, bolder, more independent person with a more fulfilling existence.

But what about the mistress’s existence? Can she be fulfilled by staying someone’s “other woman”? Well, maybe. As Nicki Minaj says in The Other Woman:

Lydia: I think you need someone with something that’s gonna keep him busy.” - The Other Woman (2014)

The key is remaining honest, consistently checking in with your partner on their needs and where they’re at, and making sure that everyone involved is on the same page.

Ultimately, we need to demystify the motivations of the Other Woman. She’s rarely in it for financial gain or social climbing, as she was so often portrayed to be in the past—rather, she’s just like any other person, looking for love or connection. We should be accepting that life is messy and contains all sorts of people—all of whom are main characters in their own stories. In 2019, Lizzo was quoted in The Cut talking about a lyric in the song “Truth Hurts.” She said, “I sing, ‘I will never ever, ever be your sidechick,’ but originally the lyric was ‘a sidechick.’ Bitch, what about sidechicks! I don’t want to exclude them! I don’t want to make them feel bad.” We could all take a little of Lizzo’s attitude forward with us the next time we’re quick to judge the Other Woman: she might just be a friend we haven’t met yet.

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