All Hail the Side Chick, the Unsung Hero Finally Getting Her Due
In the Andrew Llloyd Webber musical Evita, there is a plaintive number sung by a character known only as the Mistress, shortly after Eva has taken her place in Juan Peron’s affections. “I don’t expect my love affairs to last for long/Never fool myself that my dreams will come true,” the Mistress bemoans, adding, “all my words desert me/So anyone can hurt me and they do.” It’s the cri de coeur of the eternal sidepiece, the woman who constantly invests her hopes and dreams in powerful, uncaring men — and finds herself repeating the pattern over and over again, even as she is cast aside. And after serving this role, the Mistress assumes her rightful place in the audience’s imagination: throughout the remainder of the show, she is never seen again.
In the popular imagination, the side chick — the other woman trope, as personified by the forlorn Mistress in Lloyd Webber’s musical — is a wretched figure of consternation, a target of both our opprobrium and our pity. Yet she seems to be having a bit of a redemptive moment these days, thanks to the confluence of both popular culture and real-world factors. On last week’s episode of Succession, Kerry (Zoe Winters), Logan Roy’s mistress, assumes her rightful place next to his ex-wives in the front row of his funeral, after being cast out in a very Evita-esque moment by the eternally inscrutable Mrs. Roy, Marcia (Hiam Abass).
Reality has perhaps been even more replete with instances of side chicks making good, with Lauren Sanchez, who was part of a much-publicized 2018 affair with Jeff Bezos, managing to get a ring on it after the Amazon CEO proposed to her earlier this week. And in what is perhaps the ultimate example of a mistress playing chess rather than checkers, Camilla Parker Bowles was finally crowned queen following a near-50-year on-again, off-again romance with Charles II, which famously continued while he was married to Princess Diana (they made it official in 2005). That’s not even to mention the dramatic romance between Raquel Leviss and Tom Sandoval on Vanderpump Rules, with Sandoval dumping longtime love and fan favorite Ariana Madix by the wayside in the process; though the romance with Leviss appears to have soured (Sandoval is rumored to be currently dating a flaxen-haired Instagram influencer), the fact that the news of the relationship brought Leviss more fame than ever before speaks for itself.
Surprisingly, given the hatred typically bestowed on most side chicks throughout history, lately, public sympathies have largely been aligned with the other women. “Logan Roy’s main chicks and side chicks all getting together at his funeral. Feminism is alive and well in this universe,” someone on Twitter posted, quote-tweeting a clip from the episode of the former Roy paramours convening; another, quote-tweeting a story about Bezos’s engagement to Sanchez, wrote, “The year of side chicks keep winning.” Many compared the scene to the plot of the 2006 classic John Tucker Must Die, in which multiple women who have been unknowingly dating lothario Jesse Metcalfe at the same time band together to exact their vengeance (though the girl power element of the John Tucker revenge fantasy is somewhat lost given that Logan has, at that point, ceased converting oxygen into carbon dioxide).
In previous years, naked strivers like Kerry and aggressively Botoxed mistresses like Sanchez would have been widely pilloried; on social media, however, they are hailed as examples of Women Winning. We’ve come a long way since the late 2000s, when ombre-tressed mistresses like Rachel Uchitel and Ashley Dupré were regularly maligned in the tabloids for being homewreckers (Dupré, a former sex worker, was technically being paid for her services, but that didn’t stop outlets like Time from including her in a baffling in retrospect “Top 10 Mistresses” listicle). To this day, neither woman has quite managed to escape the taint of the Other Woman designation: Uchitel is regularly contacted by tabloids for comment involving other high-profile extramarital affairs (including, most recently, that involving Leviss), and Dupre never managed to leverage her sex scandal into a longer-term music career, as she had initially hoped (she is now perhaps best known for being the stepmother of influencer Alix Earle). Yet had they made news today, they would have garnered much more nuanced coverage — perhaps a few Refinery29 thinkpieces in their defense, or a redemptive Hulu documentary or two.
So why, then, have we come to embrace the side chick? It’s not so much that we’ve suddenly adopted a more nuanced understanding of the difficulties of long-term relationships, and how monogamy can look different for different couples. It’s also not that we’ve all metamorphosed into Camille Paglia-style feminists overnight, and we’ve all suddenly agreed that, say, fucking the married frontman of Maroon 5 and then bragging about it on TikTok is inherently empowering (though posting his DMs where he claims he wants to name his wife’s unborn child after you is admittedly pretty funny).
The ascendance of the side chick in the popular imagination can be attributed not to our evolved conception of how relationships are supposed to look, but rather, our mutual agreement on how truly shitty most men are. No longer is it OK to solely blame women like Bowles or Leviss or Sanchez or Dupre for the indiscretions of their male partners; no longer do we live in a world where devil temptresses assume all the responsibility for little ol’ CEOs and hedge fund investors unwittingly tumbling into the warm embrace of their outstretched labia minorae. Our embrace of the side chick does not hinge on our evolving understanding of sex or power dynamics or relationships in general; instead, we have simply come to accept that all men are terrible, and the women they sleep with outside of their relationships are not accomplices per se, but collateral damage of their awfulness.
Even in 2023, there are very few ways for women to assume substantial power in this world. Our culture is so nakedly misogynistic that citing the evidence for it almost seems foolish: there has yet to be a female U.S. president, nor are there still many women in positions of corporate leadership. In a monumental sign of progress, 2023 marked the first year that there were, officially, more women serving in CEO roles than there were male CEOs named John. Few women are regularly having orgasms; even fewer have a partner who is willing to, even occasionally, pick up the kids from karate practice.
Given how lengthy and disappointing the battle for gender equity has been, and how poor and angry and tired and generally just fucking unhappy we all are, there seems to be a general consensus among many of us that if a woman is able to achieve power using even the most unorthodox of means, if she is able to wrest some social capital from men’s hands by taking advantage of some fundamental male weakness, then good for her, and by extension, good for the rest of us. That is not to say that knowingly having sex with a married man and potentially destroying a family is commendable, or even forgivable. But it is to say that, in a world where male approval and validation is key to achieving any semblance of social capital, it’s understandable why some women would view sleeping with a powerful man as a pathway toward achieving even a tiny scrap of power of their own.
The ascendance of the side chick says almost nothing about the state of modern feminism, so much as it makes the case for modern feminism’s many failures. The Mistress can, and will, be hurt again. But before she does, we can all take refuge in her smaller victories.
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