The American media made millions. Comedians everywhere were given free content and an easy reference to add to their sketches. Women and men alike were given new gossip, an easy dinner party topic because nothing bonds people more than shunning a polarizing figure. Bill Clinton’s approval ratings rose and he lives on being able to avoid discussing his abuse of power and position.
Ultimately, a woman not yet 30 had her life destroyed.
Impeachment: American Crime Story (2021) is a captivating retelling of the Lewinsky scandal, providing insight on how Monica Lewinsky’s life was ruined by the exposure of her affair with then President Clinton, almost double her age and arguably the most powerful man in the world. The show spares no details, including every joke people made about oral sex and the infamous blue dress, as well as showing how clearly imbalanced the “affair” was. With Lewinsky situated within this season of American Crime Story as an executive producer, the audience gets to truly see how her life was torn to shreds. We are shown every horrible joke, every humiliating moment. Most importantly, we are shown how this clear victim of an emotionally inappropriate relationship was scapegoated in front of all of North America.
Of course, the concept of scapegoating as directly correlated to blatant misogyny is not a new phenomenon by any means. Society has historically been all too comfortable shielding their eyes from the shortcomings of men and pointing their figures at the women surrounding them. It is so much easier to connect disappointing political outcomes to the dramatics, despair, or manipulation of women than to hold men accountable.
Marie Antoinette has been painted as the reason for the discontentment of the people, and thus believed to be the reason for the fall of the entire French Monarchy. For every Beatles, there has historically been a Yoko plotting behind the curtains. Eve took one bite of the apple and thus civilization has been condemned. This narrative shows that somehow, regardless of how deep you have to dig for it, we can find an elaborate explanation for how a woman is responsible for all that went wrong.
Another interesting trait of the female scapegoat is the ease we have with criticizing her. This is nothing new, of course. Society’s critiques of women roll off the tongue, especially when they are encouraged by talking heads. Lewinsky in particular received backlash for pretty much everything about her, from her weight and looks to her promiscuity and character. Looking back, the suburban American moral-high ground is easily visible in Monica’s attacks. She was a home-wrecker, a troubled girl, and a threat to Americans beloved image of their charming president and his perfectly nuclear family.
While the narrative has thankfully improved with time, the evangelical and moralist disappointment did not extend to President Clinton at the time. The issue confronting Clinton was deeply political. He was facing accusations of perjury and possible impeachment. With the political uncertainty looming over the nation’s head, it made it all the easier to take the attention off the President and direct the media towards a villain, or someone who would serve as a root cause of all this unrest and drama. Even strictly political media outlets, the news sources we uphold as being serious and insightful today, utilized Lewinsky as a tool to dramatize the Clinton scandal and gather views.
Thus, the tale we know all too well emerged. Lewinsky was shoved to the forefront and forced to take the stress-filled hate of all of America. She became a punchline, and while Clinton was tainted in the process, he emerged comparably unscathed.
In many ways, Lewinsky was one of the first victims of modern-media torment. She became a public enemy, a tabloid star for “all the wrong reasons”. The hate for this young, female intern came naturally to the public, allowing them to turn a blind eye to the obvious abuse of power and deception perpetuated by the most important man in America. In analyzing how easy it is for a woman to be used as a political scapegoat, we need not look further than the fact that the higher standards we hold for young women greatly surpass those of men, even if that man is the President.
What does this mean for women in politics?
The glass-ceiling in politics can feel impenetrable. The barriers are made of stone and the field is already unkind to women of all backgrounds. Stories like Lewinsky’s can be incredibly discouraging for young women attempting to enter the political arena. It acts as an unfriendly reminder that the media will always be ready to pounce and attack you at any moment. It also encourages a culture of silence, perpetuating rape culture and suggesting that if unfair abuses of power occur, it is better to suffer alone than to become a punchline. While to some this view seems overdramatic, the reality is that while misogyny continues to structurally exist in society, men in power will continue to take advantage of their position, as proven by the recent downfall of Governor Cuomo.
Not only is the scapegoating of women in politics ethically wrong and incredibly consequential for politics itself, but the blaming of women is a working mechanism to further perpetuate the oppression of women. This is obviously sexist in nature, yet it still means that women in politics must watch their every step and each choice to avoid becoming a “Yoko” or a “Lewinsky” and being painted as a villain in our history books.
As the so-called Lewinsky scandal has proven, a man can make a mistake and swiftly move past it through the use of privilege and society’s ability to put any male figure on a pedestal for attempting to change. The woman can try whatever she may, but rarely is she able to escape her mistakes. As Lewinsky heartbreakingly says in the show when she is beginning to be confronted by the FBI on accounts of perjury, no one will ever marry her. Her exploitation by the media meant that she would forever be associated to the dramaticization and politicization of her sex life.
We do, of course, still call it the Lewinsky Scandal. An illicit affair and perjury of a President in an era of American politics where faith in the institution was already declining is instead sadly characterized by the young, female intern who was absolutely destroyed by American media for sleeping with an older, married man.
“I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and of course, that woman.” These words come from Lewinsky herself. This discourse on how the political sphere uses women for what best suits the agenda of the men in power. As a victim turned public enemy, Lewinsky never got the chance to move on from her deeply unfair and imbalanced relationship she had in her early 20s. Gone were the dreams of a political career, and even after her involvement with possible impeachment, she will forever be known as “that woman,” a problem, and the reason for Clinton’s downfall. Ryan Murphy’s newest season of American Crime Story hopefully shines insight on this unfortunate tradition, and in particular, reminds the audience how unusually cruel the media can be to women who are being pushed to the forefront due to the ease society has in criticizing them.
Lewinsky and many women like her could have been protected if people recognized how they were being taken advantage of by their superiors and the media. One can only hope that the recent attention to her story once again raises these concerns. Who, if not us as the audience of these scandals, is looking out for these young, subordinate women in politics and making sure they are not being blamed for being just that, a victim?
HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: Teagan Kirkey-Manning