October 8, 2012
By Ella Diaz
I deliberated over the topic of my first blog for Mujeres Talk this fall 2012. I wanted to pick something big—both central to the upcoming election and to our lives as Chicanas and Latinas. After hearing and reading about rumors of a Monica Lewinsky tell-all book, I realized that a critique of Clinton at this moment in the election season is not only the political maneuver of one party over another. It also yields big insights into how women continue to be perceived in American culture.
There are conflicting reports as to whether or not Lewinsky will write a tell-all memoir of her affair with President Clinton between 1995 and 1997. She is going to: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/she-the-people/post/monica-lewinskys-steamy-account-of-clinton-affair-could-get-12-million-advance-report-says/2012/09/20/43736520-035a-11e2-9132-f2750cd65f97_blog.html She is not going to: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/09/20/monica-lewinsky-book_n1900960.html)
Many of you may be indifferent to whether she tells or doesn’t tell; others may be screaming “Ella! Who cares?” These points of view represent the majority of reactions on blogs, such as The Huffington Post, which also reported this September that Lewinsky is not planning on writing the book. Some more suspicious commentators also add that, given the election season, Lewinsky could be cashing in on an “expensive rumor.” (See the comments in Huffing Post blog link) Nevertheless, news stories and blogs continue to announce that Lewinsky’s book is on. So why does this story matter?
Hearing about Lewinsky again, and the idea of her telling all, takes me back to my undergraduate days at UC Santa Cruz. I was 20 and a sophomore when the news story broke. I had a friend who met Lewinsky while she was in the U.C. – D.C. program, a pipeline for political science majors to intern at the capitol and other government entities. I remember staring at that famous cover of Time and thinking, “Why and how could you want to do it with an old guy?” I purposely write my reaction to the news story in this way to capture my mindset at 20, someone close to Monica’s age. I didn’t understand attractions to power and I was fairly innocent about sex. Wait, am I suggesting Monica did understand and wasn’t innocent?
So here is why her story continues to matter. Monica Lewinsky is a national (read: white) measure by which I (and numerous women) silently and implicitly judge the sexual propriety of young women and champion personal accountability as equality of the sexes, a big term and idea in the 2012 election. Why—16 years later—do we not remember President Clinton as the source of the scandal or hold him personally accountable? We misuse ‘personal accountability’ with Monica because she is not the one who represents power in the paradigm of President of the United States and intern.
How many of you remember who you were at 22? How many of you are 22? I never attempted to understand Monica, walk in her shoes, or consider her point of view. From the outset, I internalized the mainstream media’s framing of her in the 1990s.
Holding Lewinsky personally accountable for two people’s unethical actions hijacked her life in long-term ways. I remember years after the scandal, I saw her on T.V. attempting to launch a handbag line. I thought it was strange, and I felt sorry for her. It never occurred to me that employment must have been scarce and that she was attempting to harness her unwanted celebrity in a profitable way. Lewinsky did work with author Andrew Morton on a story about the affair and, according to sources, she made about a million dollars. Overall, many news stories on her indicate that finding work is not easy. But I guess we think we’ve come a long way from pinning scarlet letters on women who have sex with men that they shouldn’t.
Interestingly, I revisited some old interviews with Lewinsky (see the Barbara Walters special from 1999 here: http://youtu.be/fpCv-UT2yCU. Lewinsky grew up affluent, white, and had an affair with another married man while in high school. I forgot about that. Walters asks Lewinsky, “Why do you keep having affairs with married men?” Lewinsky claims she didn’t have feelings of self-worth and felt unworthy of being with a man. One wonders if we will ever critically assess these responses. What if we read Lewinsky’s answers to this question through Aida Hurtado’s The Color of Privilege? Hurtado claims that, in many ways, white women and women of color’s interactions and alliances continue to be structured along heteronormative hierarchies of desire. Drawing on Hurtado’s framework, let me be blasphemous:
Why shouldn’t Lewinsky make money off having sex with Clinton? I can’t help but recall an article by Tiffany Ana López—“Emotional Contraband: Prison as Metaphor and Meaning in U.S. Latina Drama” (2003)—in which she quotes Ashe Bandele’s experience of bodily searches before conjugal visits with her incarcerated husband: “The first two or three times that happened to me, I felt immodest. I felt shame and embarrassment. Now I feel camaraderie with women who work the peep shows or who lap dance for a living. Except, of course, I don’t get paid. But you know I think I should. Every glance that gets held too long, for each time one of those police runs his fingers across my underwear, those motherfuckers owe me, in the very least, cash money.”[i]
In payment for all of our disapproving eyes that lingered a bit too long, I hope Lewinsky gets paid cash money for telling.
Ella Diaz is an Assistant Professor of English at Cornell University. Her research is on the interdependence of Chican@ and Latin@ literary and visual cultures.
[i] Bandele, The Prisoner’s Wife: A Memoir, 1999: 47.
Sara Ramirez October 9, 2012 at 5:18 PM
I was in middle school when the name “Monica Lewinsky” became synonymous with “vieja cochina” at my parents’ house. I didn’t think about Lewinsky’s age though; I just thought about the attention she was getting. Sure, it was negative attention, but, hey, I thought, she didn’t have just *any* affair: it was an affair with the *President of the United States.*
I was not able to articulate it at age 12, but I knew Lewinsky’s fame had something to do with attaining the kind of power women rappers like MC Luscious (“Boom, I Got Your Boyfriend”) and Salt-N-Pepa (“None of Your Business”) were describing in the early ’90s. I sensed this power came with breaking rules, crossing boundaries.
Of course, today I know that power is a relative dynamic. While Lewinsky may have learned to be “comfortable with [her] sensuality,” as she explains in the Walters interview, her self-empowerment seems to have been co-opted by a media that caters to an audience inculcated with heteropatriarchal notions of intimacy. Both Lewinsky and Walters repeat the word “sensuality” throughout the first part of the interview, and I can’t help but think how this story would be different if we considered Lewinsky’s energy connection to Oshun, the Yoruba goddess who rules over positive interconnections, including sensuality.
This was a really provocative and fierce essay, Ella. Thanks for posting!
Theresa Delgadillo October 10, 2012 at 9:42 AM
Ella, I want to read your essay as a “hands-off-using-women’s-bodies-to-advance-your-political-agenda” statement, but the possible tell-all book strikes an odd note for me. The Huffington Post article about this possibility cites a 1999 interview as a source (!). While I appreciate your consideration of power differentials, who or what benefited from making a spectacle of one woman’s body seems relevant.
Ella Diaz October 10, 2012 at 3:17 PM
Both smart responses. I think that the media and personalities that are the media find Lewinsky an old news story (pun intended) when called on their reposting of an interview that is over a decade old. Using the story as a reminder of the immorality of a president (meaning party) over another is why the story recirculates right now. I wonder if Lewinsky watches the interview with Walters now and just fricking cringes… A story that served as a headliner now careens as a reminder. So, yes, in both contexts female body serving meaning and agendas other than her own.