What’s in a name? For Julie Chen, the CBS personality, who is married to Leslie Moonves, it is a code of fealty. Earlier this month, four days after Moonves resigned from his position as the chairman of CBS, following multiple allegations of workplace sexual abuse, Chen made known, in no uncertain terms, the degree of her marital commitment: “I’m Julie Chen-Moonves. Good night,” she said at the end of the September 14th episode of “Big Brother,” the reality-TV competition that she has hosted for CBS since 2000.
The sign-off, which Chen repeated on Wednesday, her second day back on the show, gave her return to television duties a defiant edge. Chen and Moonves first became involved in the early two-thousands, when Moonves was still married to his first wife. They wed in 2004, but Chen used only her maiden name at work, and casual viewers of her shows would not necessarily have known of her connection to the network’s head. Her persona on “Big Brother,” and on CBS’s “The Talk,” the women’s daytime panel show that she anchored from 2010 until her departure this month, has depended on an assertive froideur. Quasi-journalistic, Chen plays the glamorous moderator, analyzing cultural flash points but rarely entering the fray. Her new flare of passion suggests that she has now found a cause. A source close to her told CNN that Chen “has decided that her main focus needs to be clearing her husband’s name.” (In a statement announcing his resignation from CBS, Moonves called the allegations “untrue” and “not consistent with who I am.”)
The humiliations of a wife who “stands by” her husband are well known to Americans, but the momentum of #MeToo has made the role particularly vexed. A wife whose husband has behaved badly is presumed to be a conscious or unconscious accomplice, a delusional victim, or, most injuriously, a fool. How did she not know? The sexism of our culture still makes it beyond comprehension that we could hold a man accountable for his misdeeds without also doling out some blame to the caretakers around him, who we believe should be responsible for his moral maintenance. “It feels very unjust,” Rebecca Traister wrote in her excellent 2016 essay “Why Should Wives Have to Answer for Their Husbands’ Behavior?” “But for wives, answering for a husband’s misdeeds has long been part of the bargain.” Yet it also seems too simple, in this moment, to unilaterally blame male influence for the maneuvers of women who choose to use their voices to invalidate those of other women. The public-facing loyalty of the abuser’s wife destabilizes the #MeToo movement’s core vision—that women should be able to speak and be believed.
Unlike Georgina Chapman, who filed for divorce from Harvey Weinstein after last year’s torrent of exposés, or Melania Trump, who barely seems to register the sexual-misconduct accusations against her husband, Chen has come out, unequivocally and proactively, in support of Moonves. “Right now, I need to spend more time at home with my husband and son,” she said, during a pretaped farewell message that aired on her final episode of “The Talk,” last week. On Twitter, she has called Moonves “a good man and a loving father, devoted husband and inspiring corporate leader” and a “kind, decent, and moral human being.” And it may seem this way, from her vantage point. One thornier aspect of #MeToo consciousness-raising involves convincing not just men but other women that they might not know everything about a man they know well—that nearness does not guarantee transparency, that a man who is evil during the day might be patient when he returns home at night, that the powerful can apply a vile and discriminating calculus to who will suffer abuse and who will not. (This is what is so useless about the statement signed by sixty-five female acquaintances of the embattled Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, calling him a “good person.”)
“Patriarchy has no gender,” bell hooks wrote. Traister, writing about Camille Cosby and Hillary Clinton defending their husbands, identified “how the length of some public marriages means that they must comprise and account for dramatic shifts in cultural assumptions about gender, sex, and power.” Chen, at forty-eight years old, is of a different, purportedly more progressive generation. She was born in Queens, and became enamored with evening news shows as a child. She first arrived at CBS, as an intern, in 1990, five years before Moonves joined. She returned in 1999, as an anchor for “CBS Morning News.” Unlike Camille Cosby, Chen has a robust public identity; unlike Hillary Clinton, she was not forced to assume her husband’s last name in her professional life. Chen and Moonves enjoy a modern strain of union in which the wife is permitted to have loud charisma and ambition, and a measure of independence. And yet, almost overnight, the modern-seeming marriage shows us its archaic bones. It is Chen who has so far been the mouthpiece for defending Moonves’s reputation, and it may be she who will broker a future rehabilitation campaign.
Chen can continue hosting “Big Brother,” because it is a show that shuts off the outside world. There, she can exist as a pretaped master of ceremonies, commiserating with evicted contestants, reviewing surveillance feeds with the tittering in-studio audience. “The Talk,” which films live, does not allow this sort of detachment. It trades on caffeine and opinions, on civil disagreement and innocuous gossip painlessly intertwined. Before Chen’s departure, Joy Behar, a host of “The View,” observed that Chen’s personal life might be interfering with “The Talk” ’s vaguely feminist atmosphere. “What topics can they do?” Behar said. “They can’t talk about about the #MeToo movement without her coming clean about her husband.” During Chen’s hiatus in September, her co-hosts extended good will toward her, but wondered aloud about the network’s slowness to address the terror that Moonves allegedly inflicted on the workplace culture. “The Talk,” like other female-centric talk shows, is the product of the sentimental notion that all women can ultimately cast away their differences in the service of natural sorority. In the video announcing her exit, Chen’s voice cracked as she spoke of the “sisterhood” between herself and her fellow-hosts. The panel had a palpable chemistry. Now Chen is choosing a prior engagement.