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Why Monica Lewinsky is NOT my feminist hero.

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Last week was apparently the 20th anniversary of the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal.  I’m not sure why we need to celebrate or commemorate such a fiasco but this morning I discovered this tweet by Eve Peyser, a staff writer at Vice.com

 

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There’s a lot in this one tweet.  For starters I don’t how it’s very feminist to make negative blanket statements about two entire generations of women.  To encompass all baby boomers and generation X women in one sweeping generalization like that is really condemning most women in the United States.

I’m not a fan of broad generalizations about any group, and I have a more nuanced view of the Lewinksy scandal so this was my response to that tweet.

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(I actually made a mistake when I wrote my tweet.  For years I always thought I was slightly younger than Lewinsky.  I only discovered when researching this article that Monica and I are actually the exact same age.)

For starters I didn’t learn about the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal from textbooks and news articles.  I lived through it.  I won’t delve into the minutia of the entire ordeal and I might get a couple of small details wrong but the basics go like this.  A young privileged woman (Monica Lewinsky) open and aggressively pursued a married man (President Bill Clinton) who had a long history of infidelity and womanizing.  The GOP leadership was already investigating Clinton for a past real estate deal when they stumbled upon evidence of the affair.  When Clinton denied it, Republican representatives filed for articles of impeachment on grounds that he’d lied under oath.  Every torrid sexual detail was exposed.  Several horrible people profited from tell all books and tabloid exclusives, but when the dust settled Clinton, although permanently tainted from the scandal, stayed in power.  In the upcoming years several of the men who lead the charge against Clinton, ended up in far more lurid sex scandals of their own.

Lewinsky received a disproportionate amount of negative press for her role in the affair.  She was called everything from a slut, whore, home-wrecker, and opportunist.  The press mocked her weight, clothing, and appearance.  Her personal life was dissected and analyzed and nearly everything written about her was negative.  Intimate sexual details between her and the president were printed for all of eternity in the special prosecutor’s report.  Her face graced the cover of newspapers and magazines for months.  Lewinsky tried to profit off of her notoriety by selling her own line of handbags, a venture which quickly failed and did nothing to improve her image.

After millions of tax dollars were spent on the investigation, the whole mess ended up backfiring for the GOP as the general public sentiment could be reduced to the simple question:

Was all of this necessary for a blow job?

Now back to the idea of Lewinsky being bullied and slut-shamed.  Regarding the charge of bullying.  Although the press was overly harsh toward her, most women I knew had mixed feelings.   Social media didn’t exist at the time and none of us could really have done anything but sit back and watch the train wreck.  I’m sure Lewinsky got mountains of hate mail but no one could tweet at her, make video rants about her, mock her online, share unflattering photos of her, or dox her personal information.  The general public wasn’t nearly as interactive in such affairs in the 1990s.   We just didn’t have the means to get involved.

As far as slut-shaming is concerned, that’s also a bit complicated.  There is a faction of third wave feminism that promotes the idea that anything sexual a woman does should be championed or celebrated.   For centuries female sexuality has been viewed as evil or something to be controlled.  There is nothing wrong of course with two adults in a consensual sexual relationship.  Things get blurry however when sexuality crosses over into unethical behavior.   A person can think whatever they want about the institution of marriage, but they don’t exist in a cultural vacuum where everyone shares the same belief system.  Knowingly having an affair with a married person is a high risk behavior.  When one enters into an adulterous relationship with someone they know is married they are suddenly involving other people without their consent.  Although they might get away with their affair, it could also have extreme negative consequences for both the spouse and children of the person they are sleeping with.  Infidelity is a selfish and unethical act that involves lies and betrayal.  Deception destroys trust in any relationship, and can cause untold damage to the faithful spouse.  Two atheists can tear each other apart in a marriage without the concept of religious sin or morality ever entering the picture.  Simply put an extramarital affair might be fun for the two people involved in it, but it might also wreck emotional havoc on an entire family.

I also don’t think Lewinsky is the best example for the #MeToo movement.  Clinton never threatened Lewinsky’s job.  There’s no evidence that he did anything of the sort.  He never told her he’d destroy her career, harm her family or ruin her reputation if she didn’t go along with his advances.  She has never testified to as much, and there’s nothing in the Starr report that would indicate it.  Lewinsky was much younger than Clinton, but he didn’t exactly coerce or force her.  If anything she was a starstruck girl who got a rush and sense of self-importance by having sexual relations with a very powerful man.  She openly bragged about their affair, about flashing her thong underwear during meeting with him.  She also boasted about “bringing her presidential knee pads to the White House” before she even met him.  Lewinsky probably did have emotional scars from a previous relationship she’d had with another older married man.  She probably had a warped view of relationships with older men because of her past.  Clinton had a long history of inappropriate behavior with women.  It was unprofessional and foolish to get involved sexually with a young subordinate.  As the POTUS he had more important things to worry about.  He used poor judgment, lied to his wife, lied to the American people and ruined his own legacy in the process.  He had far more life experience and more at stake, and should have used restraint.  He wasn’t the first president to have an extramarital affair, and Lewinsky if far from the first woman to have sex with one.

What also compelled me to reject the label of “feminist hero” toward Lewinsky are Lewinsky’s own words and actions since the scandal ended.  At first she tried to ride her notoriety with a line of handbags.  That wasn’t exactly a bold step forward for feminism or women’s rights.  It was a crass attempt to cash in on the media attention.  That venture failed quickly and she faded into relative obscurity.  When she returned to tell her story many years later she was contrite.  She took ownership of her mistakes and failings.  She started a platform to raise awareness of the dangers of public humiliation in the media.

The irony is of course is that although she was humiliated by a vicious press, Lewinsky’s actions also caused great humiliation to Bill’s wife Hillary and their teenage daughter Chelsea.  Hillary was far from unscathed from this whole mess.  Although Hillary has been long-suffering through Bill’s many dalliances she chose to stay in the marriage and forgive her husband.  She has also bore the burden of his actions and poor choices.  Bill’s past with women was constantly brought up during her failed presidential attempt.   Her moral center was questioned even though she’d done nothing wrong but try to defend her husband.   As much as Lewinsky might feel she has to endure a permanent scarlet A on her chest for her youthful mistakes, Hillary also wears the badge of enabler, doormat, or frigid shrew.

Lewinsky didn’t improve the plight of women, and she didn’t do anything heroic through her extended ordeal.  She did have enough personal strength and insight to take responsibility for her actions many years later.  She’s also tried to improve the lives of others through her anti-bullying campaign.  If anything she’s a survivor who tried to use her personal pain for good, but to call her a hero is a bridge too far.

If millennial women are searching for an actual feminist hero of the #MeToo movement the choice should be obvious.  Just a few years before the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal a young attorney testified that she was repeatedly sexually harassed by her boss Clarence Thomas.  She spoke up because he had just been nominated to a position on the supreme court.  Anita Hill sat alone in front of the all male senate judiciary committee and the world to describe her ordeal in brutal detail.  During her brave testimony she was viciously picked apart by the press and Thomas’s supporters.  She also endured an avalanche of scrutiny of every detail of her life, background and personal relationships.  She went through as much grief as Lewinsky if not more.  In the end Clarence got his seat on the court and Anita Hill never changed her story.  At time of her testimony 60 percent of Americans believed Thomas over Hill, yet after her testimony, the number of women filing harassment claims with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission doubled.  Anita Hill is a feminist hero in every way possible, in fact she’s a feminist superstar.

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What I’ve learned as I enter the Disney Villainess stage of my life…

If I was a character in a Disney princess film, I would most likely be the villainess.  I kind of fit the profile.

  • I live alone.
  • I am childless.
  • I live with two cats.
  • I’m not just single, I’m divorced.
  • I look young for my age.
  • I dress young for my age.
  • I own a lot of fabulous heels, dresses and coats.
  • I love makeup.

At first glance these traits might seem like nothing but put them all together and I’m basically the Evil Queen in Snow White,

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The twisted Fairy Maleficent

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Or even the aging Mother Gothel in Tangled.

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This is me in a mermaid costume, you can see it now right?

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In Disney’s universe and in many of our iconic fairy tales the most dangerous threat to a young maiden’s well-being is a scheming, jealous, aging beauty.

The bitter fallen woman antagonist is so ingrained children’s fables you’d think there be some basis in reality for the archetype.  We all know bitter angry women but where are the marauding mobs of middle-aged gals destroying modeling schools, poisoning cheerleaders, or torching beauty pageants?  There is the popular Real Housewives series on Bravo but those ladies are mostly Disney villainess types attacking other Disney villainess types.

In the real world around 77% of murder victims are men, and men commit about 90% of all murders..  Statistically speaking women have far more to fear from the men in their lives then they do from other females..  Intimate partners, former intimate partners, relatives, neighbors and co-workers are the most likely to murder or maim any woman.  Female murder victims (41.5%) were almost 6 times more likely than male murder victims (7.1%) to have been killed by an intimate.  Men are also more at risk of violence from men they know well, as more than half of them are killed by an acquaintance, but for the most part women aren’t much of a threat to either gender.  Of course women do make up 10% of murderers and 15% of serial killers but it does seem odd that most fairy tales showcase the exception and not the rule.

Our most iconic fables were obviously written by men, in a time when women were lucky if they even had a rudimentary education.  The theme of an older jealous homicidal female might have made more sense when women had far fewer choices.  Until fairly recently most women had four basic paths in life – wife, nun, prostitute or domestic laborer.  Women and girls also had little agency in their choices.  Most families decided the fate of their daughters, as women had few rights to make their own decisions.

Since it’s 2016 and I’m not limited to whatever choices my family wants for me, I don’t see young women as adversaries.   I see someone who will soon learn how hard it is out there to just exist as a woman.   I know she’s going to go through situations where she won’t be taken seriously, when she’ll have to use her husband or boyfriend as some type of mouthpiece to get her point across. I know she’ll face disappointment after she sees man after man promoted ahead of her for no reason. I can hear her sigh with disgust when she reduced to nothing more than breasts, butt and legs.  I can feel her cringe as a man in power touches her in a way that makes her skin crawl.  I can imagine the many painful years ahead of her when she’s been let down by her husband, becomes frustrated by screaming children and disillusioned by white picket fence dreams.

I also reject the notion that I’m in competition with young women for attention from men.   A man’s affections aren’t necessarily worth much.  I’ve just seen too many marriages fall apart or turn into something less than fulfilling.   More than a few married men have sent me awkward emails in the middle of the night, or dropped their wedding ring into their pockets while chatting me up, or confessed that they hated their wives.  After these examples and my own divorce I know marriage is mostly a crapshoot.  Some are beautiful unions that strengthen both partners but many are sad and tragic illusions.    I also can’t help but think of the bad relationships I’ve had with emotionally needy and draining men who demand constant reassurance yet give little in return. Then there are the pretty boys who have to chase every woman they find to help feed their insatiable egos.  A good partner is hard to find for both genders and I’d rather be alone than be in a toxic disaster.

Sure there are some younger women who frustrate me. I do get annoyed when I see them treating themselves like doormats just to keep their boyfriend or partner happy.  My heart hurts when I see them trash each other or buy into the notion that women must always compete with other women.  I roll my eyes a bit when they seem to crave and demand attention based solely on their appearance.  I also remind myself that we’ve all been brought up in a culture that reinforces the notion that women are only valued for their appearance.  I try to give younger women a break too when I remember what an insecure, attention seeking mess I was at their age.

I’ve often said I want to rewrite all the fairy tales.  If I were a Disney villainess I would wrap the young maidens in an invisible cloak that would warm them every time they makes a misstep or danger approaches.  I’d bequeath magic potions to detect date rape drugs, weapons to protect against would be predators, and magic mirrors that would offer daily affirmations not criticism.  I’d give them glitter bombs to throw on aggressive cat callers and tutus to slap on angry misogynistic bullies.  I’d create a kingdom where there were no glass ceilings, no demeaning remarks by men in power, no boys clubs, no cyber-stalkers, no angry internet trolls, no sexual predators, no gender biases, and no assumptions that women are lesser or only the sum of their physical parts.  I’d do it all in my fallen woman finery with dresses that are “too young” for me, tight skirts, high heels, full hair and bright red lipstick.  I wouldn’t wear a coat made of puppy skins or a high-necked caped gown but I would include all my sisters young and old to celebrate in the sisterhood of womanhood.

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Slut-Shaming: To What End?

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gone wild (Photo credit: istolethetv)

Lately I have found myself frustrated with other feminists over the cry of “Slut-shaming“.  Although I agree that women have been unfairly judged for their sexual appetites and behavior for hundreds of years, I also think that some sexual behavior actually hurts the cause of feminism.  We shouldn’t return to the days of corsets, ankle length skirts when the very mention of female sexuality was taboo.  Yet we should also not champion obvious degrading and detrimental sexual behavior in the name of feminism.

For instance, is a drug addicted, physically abused, low paid prostitute dominated by a male pimp anything to celebrate?  Is a young woman with low self-esteem who performs sexual acts in public to gain personal validation off-limits to criticism?  Is a sex-worker who doesn’t hide or shield her children from her occupation really making a bold step forward for female empowerment?  When do the issues of narcissism and self-destructive behavior enter the dialog?  Are all forms of female nudity and sexuality empowering?  When does it become exploitative?

It is not such much specific behavior as it is the context.  Expressions of female sexuality and nudity can be empowering, politically brazen and extremely pro-woman but they can also be degrading and demeaning.   If a woman is playing into the victim complex or treating herself as an object not worthy of respect she is part of the problem, not the solution.  Are we supposed to champion a drunken college student who decides to flash her breasts in a Girls Gone Wild video?  Should the woman who recently decided to have her anus publicly tattooed on camera be held up as some sort of example of female sexual liberty?  Or is she just a woman who has made some extremely poor decisions?  The porn industry has become so saturated with women willing to have sex on camera that wages and celebrity status have plummeted in the industry.  What was once something that only the desperate or the truly sexually liberated would do has become almost mundane.  At the same time there are prostitutes that have complete control over their income, working conditions and clientele who aren’t drug addicts, aren’t being abused and have turned the tables on the power structure in the industry.  No single sexual act or occupation can be singled out as “feminist” or “anti-feminist” if the behavior is coming from a place of pride and self-worth it is entirely different than if the source is self-loathing, fear and need of approval.  Not every sex worker or sexual exhibitionist is a victim, nor are they necessarily being exploited.

Yet during these changing times regarding female sexuality, misogyny is at an all time high.  The anti-feminist forces have gone from empty rhetoric to promoting legislation challenging our reproductive rights and even basic health care.   They want to do away with laws that might protect us from having to pay twice as much for our health insurance based on our gender, make many forms of birth control illegal, and make abortion a criminal act.  Many legislators voted against the Violence Against Women Act and the Lilly Ledbetter act, which were ultimately passed but in June the senate blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act which would have helped woman sue for equal pay.

I am not here to blame the victim, but it does discourage me when I meet so many young women who don’t seem to even know a political struggle is happening and then treat themselves with such low regard.  They are only giving fuel to the critics who would claim that all pre-marital sex is an abomination and that a sexualized female is something to fear.  I can’t help but see parallels in the civil rights movement.  Many in the African American community cry out against crime and violence, gangster rap and the thug culture that actually discourages achievement.  Of course racism is very insidious and still a huge problem, but if no one inside the community calls out the self-defeating behavior…it just makes everything more of a uphill battle.

I thought feminism was about being in control of our lives, having a right to speak our minds, and having the same opportunities as men have in the bedroom, in the workplace and in our government.  I didn’t think it was about declaring all sexual behavior as an empowering statement against patriarchy.  When I see a young woman disrespect herself my heart sinks.  When I see a woman desperately cling to some man doing anything and everything sexually in the hopes that he will stick around it saddens me.  When I see a bright intelligent woman with multiple options for her future resort to sex work it depresses me.  Although I understand its appeal, as sex work is one of the few high paying options available to young women.  The only non-sex based profession where women make considerably more money than men is the modeling industry and the largest scholarship program for women in the world is still the Miss America pageant organization.  I want every young girl to see the entire universe available to them, to know that they are more than their looks or genitalia.   It is a fine line we tread between celebrating our sexuality and allowing others to exploit it.

I do not propose that I have any answers to these ethical quandaries but I am not going to pretend that women treating themselves with disrespect and playing into negative stereotypes is a good thing.  A woman cannot treat herself poorly and then try to defend it by crying “slut-shaming” when she is the one shaming herself.  Some would argue that there is no sexual behavior that is negative or exploitative no matter what the situation.  But when a woman flashes her breasts for a Girls Gone Wild video or a woman engages in prostitution to pay for her drug habit, that is not a step forward but a step back.  To achieve real equality with men we need to respect ourselves in all aspects of our lives including our sexuality.