"Impeachment" Shows How Different the Clinton Scandal Looks with Women at the CenterRoundup
tags: Bill Clinton, feminism, scandal, impeachment, popular culture, Monica Lewinsky, television, 1990s
Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.
The story of then-President Bill Clinton's impeachment in 1998 has long been told as a story of political overreach driven by the excessive appetites of men: Clinton's insatiable sexual appetites, Independent Counsel Ken Starr's obsessive investigation, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich's drive to remove his political nemesis from office. The women in the story most often appeared in both media coverage and political discourse to be a mixture of two-dimensional victims and villains serving in preassigned roles: the helpless ingénue, the scorned wife, the flirtatious temptress, the scheming friend.
But what if the women, rather than being relegated to stock characters, were at the center of the narrative? That's the approach of FX's new series, "American Crime Story: Impeachment." The first episode opens on the tear-soaked face of Monica Lewinsky, a young woman whose sex life has thrust her unwillingly into a thicket of betrayals and deceptions. Lewinsky, portrayed in the series by Beanie Feldstein, found herself caught in 1998 in an abusive legal system with a team of investigators threatening to destroy her life if she failed to cooperate. (Not to mention her relationship with Clinton himself, which in 2018 she described as one defined by a power imbalance: "The road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege.")
Sarah Paulson's Linda Tripp -- the Pentagon employee who secretly taped her conversations with Lewinsky and ultimately betrayed her to Starr's team -- is the focus of this first episode, which revolves tellingly around a network of women who laid the groundwork (some more willingly than others) for Clinton's impeachment.
By mapping that network, the series transforms a key episode in American history from one about the flaws of men into one about the agency of women. Seen from this vantage point, it becomes a story of power, politics, social relations and sex that is as much a product of the 2020s as it is a reflection on the 1990s.
The new series comes at a timely moment, in the midst of a broader cultural reassessment of both the 1990s and the women who were for so long the butt of jokes rather than main characters in their own stories. It's impossible to miss the reevaluation of the 1990s unfolding in popular culture during the last few years.