Lisa Wilkinson: The Dilemma Facing Phoebe Burgess

And so here we are again, with the all too familiar scenario.

Prominent man faces allegations of sexual impropriety.

Wife stands by him loyally.

Speculation swirls as to the state of their marriage.

Paparazzi hover.

Oceans of ink are then expended as allegations are met with denials, lawyers' letters fly even as all the king’s horses and all the king’s men line up in defensive formation. And still... all eyes slyly turn to the wife...

What does she think?

Did she know or suspect?

Did he tell her ahead of the anticipated firestorm?

Will she break ranks and express anything from angst to anger?

Or will she stay silent?

I refer of course to...

Well, take your pick.

In the past month, it could be anyone from The Talk co-host Julie Chen standing by her husband, the former CBS CEO Les Moonves, to President Trump with Melania and Stormy Daniels, and a handful of others.

Closer to home we’ve had Phoebe Burgess who has, to this point, kept a dignified silence as her football playing husband Sam Burgess is all over the front pages linked with lurid allegations -- with nothing yet proven and not even any agreement on the broad details -- concerning a social media scandal in rugby league.

In Phoebe’s case our sympathy is all the greater as she is heavily pregnant with the couple’s second child, and has already cancelled a number of what perhaps could have been awkward public appearances. All of us who recall those exhausting latter stages of pregnancy shudder at the thought of what it would be like to have public scandal thrown on top of it, and with that Phoebe has at least received great support on social media.

Overnight she posted a photo apparently taken by husband Sam of her blossoming 27-week-pregnant tummy, next to daughter Poppy with the caption “Moments in the sun with our babies”.  So Phoebe appears to have made her support for Sam clear ahead of his press conference today, where he has said he will address the swirling headlines. The truth is yet to come out, and he may be cleared, but she's still had to weather the media storm.

But overseas there is no doubt that the expectations of the women in the middle of these scandals has changed.

No longer is it the case that the woman who says “I stand by my man” is allowed to do just that while surrounded by her closest supporters shouting down all those who would repeat the damaging allegations.

In fact, back in 1998, at the height of the Bill Clinton/Monica Lewinsky scandal when Hillary Clinton said “I am no Tammy Wynette, standing by her man”, she nevertheless did exactly that, blaming the whole thing on “a right wing conspiracy”. These days I doubt she’d get away with it -- largely because of the perceived disrespect to Lewinsky herself. A woman who clearly had a story to tell.

For, in the wake of the #MeToo movement, there is now an ever-great identification with and empathy for the alleged victims in the piece: the females who have come forward to call out these men and their seedy actions.

The Chen/Moonves episode is a classic case in point.

When the allegations first emerged, Julie Chen simply said: “Leslie is a good man and a loving father, devoted husband and inspiring corporate leader. He has always been a kind, decent and moral human being. I fully support my husband and stand behind him and his statement.” Thereby dismissing the allegations against him, and the women who had spoken out.

At the time she was strongly supported by her co-hosts on The Talk, including former reality star Sharon Osbourne.

But then last week when the allegations piled up, and Moonves was removed from his position, things changed. While Chen continued to support her husband, and announced she would be taking some time off from the show, her fellow panel members did not close ranks around her.

“Whatever times I've had of hardship over the last eight years,” Osbourne said, “Julie has always been there for me. It's very embarrassing and upsetting to have to talk about her husband, but we . . . feel it's right.”

And so they did.

When the show started all four panelists were united in their stance, addressing the allegations and the growing number of women making them about the husband of their dear friend Julie, and not dismissing them.

“These women's stories matter,” Sarah Gilbert said, setting the tone that where once these women would be so easily dismissed as troublemakers, it’s time we all started to listen and did our bit to help break the conspiracy of silence around a culture which has quietly but powerfully ruled for too long.

Osbourne herself said while she had supported Moonves initially, the sheer weight of numbers of subsequent allegations had meant they could no longer be ignored and it was clear to her “the man has a problem”.

“Julie Chen I know is a resilient woman,” Sheryl Underwood added. "I think this is a blessing from God to be unburdened from secrets and unchained from lies.”

If so, God indeed moves in mysterious ways, but let’s leave that.

The point is that neither for Chen’s fellow The Talk panelists, nor for the public, was it felt that simply staying loyal to her husband -- with no regard to the alleged victims -- was enough. One viewer expressed her outrage at Chen on Twitter, saying,  “She really is proud to be married to (an alleged) sexual abuser. Julie girl, you are officially cancelled.”

And so it will go on.

The point is that in these turbulent times, public sympathy is finally starting to flow at least in part towards the accusers... women who have previously stayed silent, for fear of not being heard, or believed.

It means that while standing by your man through hell and high water used to be an admirable end in itself, the public mood is changing.

Now the expectation is that if the man in question is accused of sexual misconduct, then he has a case to answer.

Now, more than ever, the public wants to know of the wife: did she know? Could she have done something to stop it? And in standing by her man is she part of the problem? Or, and plenty will think this, is it none of our damn business how a couple navigates through such murky marital waters?

Because while this flow of sympathy to the alleged victims is by and large positive, it is of course a double-edged sword.

For with the increased tendency for these women to be heard and these stories to make headlines, it means that before allegations of impropriety are aired in the public domain they must be more thoroughly vetted than ever.  For everyone’s sake.

Whatever happens, Phoebe, I wish you all strength.

Feature Image: AAP