Women heading towards 60 do not usually have affairs with teenage boys. That's one of the things that makes the Robinson scandal so mesmerizing -- that, and the fact, of course, that the trio of money, religion and politics are involved. But turn the story on its head: A politically powerful woman chooses to go against convention and follow her own desires. Amidst all the sleaze, could we take something positive from it?
Out of all the newspaper reports I read on the subject, just one touched on this aspect of the story. In her analysis of the Robinson family's turmoil, the Sunday Tribune's Northern Ireland reporter Suzanne Breen noted, "from a feminist perspective, perhaps Robinson's affair with her toyboy is to be savoured. How many aging men enjoy young sexy girlfriends without anyone batting an eyelid? And as a woman of pensionable age, her libido is surely to be celebrated."
She went on to point out several problems with such an interpretation: the creepy fact, for instance, that Mrs. Robinson had known her lover since he was nine years old.
It's a cliche that men are less likely than women to be mocked for dalliances with their juniors. That's why 'toyboy' makes such a good headline, but a word for 'toygirl' does not exist. So I'm tempted -- just tempted -- to see something admirable in Iris' bucking of the trend.
But feminism is about true equality between the sexes. If Robinson had stood for this principle, if she hadn't been self-righteously homophobic, things would be different. So my question is sadly rhetorical, rather than realistic. Is there any way we can see Iris Robinson's defiant affair with a younger man as a feminist act, or the woman herself as a feminist icon? There's one answer, and it's a simple no.
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