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Wendi Deng Murdoch, out from behind the scenes

By J. Courtney Sullivan, Special to CNN
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STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Wendi Deng Murdoch only appears ornamental, says J. Courtney Sullivan
  • In fact, Mrs. Rupert Murdoch is a shrewd businesswoman, Sullivan says
  • Sullivan: When Deng stepped out of her prescribed role and took action, the public went ga-ga
  • Deng has remained characteristically silent about it all, but she acted, says Sullivan

Editor's note: J. Courtney Sullivan is the author of the New York Times bestselling novels "Commencement" and "Maine." Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, New York magazine, Elle, Glamour and Real Simple, among other publications.

(CNN) -- Last week, when Wendi Deng Murdoch stole the show at the parliamentary tabloid hearings with a sock to the face of her husband's pie-wielding aggressor, it seemed like the demure woman who calls Rupert Murdoch her "hubby" had suddenly turned fierce. In fact, Deng's impromptu reaction may have revealed more about her true self than she'd like to let on.

For the previous two hours, Murdoch's 42-year-old third wife had sat behind him and his son James, right in the middle of the television camera's frame, dressed in a pink blazer better suited to a Barbie doll than an actual adult woman. She flipped her hair, patted her octogenarian husband on the back and pointed to herself, laughing, when Rupert mentioned that he had taken his family to 10 Downing St. in the past, always entering through the back door.

The entire afternoon had a theatrical air, with everyone playing a role: James Murdoch acted apologetic and contrite while distancing himself from any wrongdoing. Rupert, the billionaire media mogul, channeled his inner Mr. Magoo, coming across as doddering and perplexed.

For her part, Deng seemed feminine. Soft. Doting. Strictly ornamental. It's a persona she's been cultivating for years.

Shortly after their 1999 wedding, Murdoch announced that Deng, who was born in China and holds a master's degree from the Yale School of Management, would be stepping down from her executive role at a News Corp. subsidiary in Hong Kong. He described her as "busy working on decorating the new apartment."

Perhaps we're just over the moon to see the wife of a disgraced man act as something other than window dressing for once.
--J. Courtney Sullivan
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Ever since, her public image has been that of a glamorous housewife and doting mother to their two daughters, and recently as a co-producer of the film "Snow Flower and the Secret Fan." But behind the scenes, she's also a shrewd businesswoman who has held great influence over News Corp.'s investments in Asia, the company's fastest-growing market. The Murdochs do not like to advertise this fact, which should come as no surprise: They're not exactly known for transparency.

A 2000 Wall Street Journal profile reported that Deng frequently accompanied her husband and stepson to meetings with high-ranking Chinese officials, where she would sometimes intervene "to smooth over potentially awkward situations."

That was a handy skill for her to hone, since whenever powerful men behave badly, we the public feel the need to know what their wives think about it. The logic seems to be that if a woman remains by his side, the culprit is somehow more deserving of forgiveness. Most of the time, especially if the crimes are to do with infidelity, we feel pity when the poor wife gets trotted out, as in the case of Silda Spitzer. In other cases (see also: Ruth Madoff) we feel scorn.

This time around, when Deng spontaneously stepped out of her prescribed role and took action, we went ga-ga. We've developed a collective crush that even corruption of the highest order can't quash. Perhaps we're just over the moon to see the wife of a disgraced man act as something other than window dressing for once.

In the parliamentary chamber, the previously tense mood seemed to soften after the incident. Tom Watson, a Labor member of Parliament who had been particularly critical only minutes earlier, said, "Mr. Murdoch, your wife has a very good left hook."

On Twitter, #Wendi became a trending topic, and admiration flowed from stars and regular folks alike. Russell Simmons tweeted, "When I saw Wendi Murdoch last week in NYC, she told me she had to go to London to take 'care of her man' ... now I see what she meant."

Even Jonnie Marbles, the would-be pie-thrower, has weighed in, saying he has "much respect to her for doing that, it was quite incredible."

An unabashed use of ethnic stereotypes was mixed in with the rest of the praise. The unfortunate phrase "Crouching Wendi: Hidden Tiger" cropped up in a CNN.com article reporting that microbloggers in China saluted Deng and referred to her as a Tiger mom. Former CBS News anchor Katie Couric wrote, "Wow, Wendi Murdoch giving whole new meaning to the term tiger mother...insanity!"

I thought the term "Tiger mother" referred to a woman who banned her children from having slumber parties and getting anything short of straight As. But apparently it just means pissed off and Asian.

Headlines like "Wendi to the Rescue" dominated in the second half of the week.

Last week's Time magazine cover story was a scathing look at the damage Murdoch's tabloids have wrought on the families of soldiers and murder victims, among others. But a day after the hearing, the most popular article on Time.com was a slideshow of Deng with celebrity friends like Nicole Kidman, entitled "Wendi Deng: The Life and Times of Mrs. Rupert Murdoch."

Deng has remained characteristically silent about it all. But that's okay. She acted. And as her husband is now finding out to his detriment, actions speak far louder than words.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of J. Courtney Sullivan.