We, as a society, tend to give women the short end of the stick. Right now, you might be thinking ‘duh’ or crying misandry right now. If you’re in that second group, I can’t help you with this piece. Sometime last year I was listening to the Slow Burn podcast about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. I had complicated thoughts about the whole thing. As someone who grew up in the 90s, I was distantly aware of the scandals. Bill Clinton mainly figured into my worldview via re-aired episodes of the Simpsons. Episodes were he appeared as a cool saxophone-playing guy, was replaced by an alien in their attempts to take over the Earth, and uh, flirted with Marge Simpson. Generally, as I learned more, there were a few conclusions I came to. What Clinton did was wrong, regardless of whether the relationship was consensual or not. The power imbalance between the middle-aged President and his twenty-year-old White House intern was always going to be fraught. Might we view Clinton in a different light in the wake of the #MeToo movement? Absolutely. However, at the time, it was clearly a partisan hack job. Those condemning the President weren’t about moral standards. You know why I think that? One of Clinton’s detractors was a fellow named Brett Kavanagh and we know what his track record with sexual assault is. There was only one person in the whole scandal who I thought was pretty blameless in all this. Monica Lewinsky herself.
I am sure every late night host in the 90s made a joke at Lewinsky’s expense in a way that feels very victim-blamey. Considering what we now know about David Letterman, perhaps that isn’t all that surprising. During the podcast Slow Burn, Linda Tripp describes her relationship in almost paternalistic terms. She describes Lewinsky as no more than a child. A frustrating analogy to make about a consenting adult because it makes Clinton look way worse. I think it also ignores the mental state that most people in their early twenties tend to be in. They are desperate for external validation, to be recognised as part of the adult world. Lewinsky was not some child full of naiveté. Sure, youth and inexperience led her to decisions that an older person wouldn’t have made but infantilising her removes her agency. When people do this to you, it can feel like they know what’s best for you regardless of how you feel. They make decisions ‘for your own good’ and that can feel hurtful especially when you’re looking to be seen as mature in the spaces you exist in. I guess my point is, we should have treated Monica Lewinsky as a person and not as a political weapon. That’s how I felt coming out of the second season of Slow Burn. It made me angry at those late night hosts of the 90s who joked at Lewinsky’s expense. We rehabilitate former presidents like Clinton and the Bushes but we rarely look back at the people they destroyed along the way.
There’s another 90s figure who is most known for her connection to a celebrity and was made the butt of the joke throughout that decade. Courtney Love. Perhaps best summed up by The Narcissist Cookbook, I think society doesn’t seem to like women at the best of times, but we really get mad when they fuck our rock stars. Again, growing up in the 90s I mostly knew Courtney Love as a joke. The wife of a rock star who many blamed for the death of her husband. The Yoko Ono of Nirvana. See, there it is, isn’t it? We blamed Yoko for the break-up of the Beatles. Never mind that Lennon and McCartney famously didn’t get along and had vastly different song sensibilities. Blame it all on Yoko. Courtney lost her husband when she was barely 29 and has had belligerent assholes blaming her for it ever since. Her understandable trauma in the public eye was just dismissed as your regular run-of-the-mill celebrity breakdown. Like how we all made fun of Britney Spears in 2007 for shaving her head despite the fact that she was poked and prodded about her hair and body endlessly. Shaving her head was her way of protest. When someone suggests that Britney doesn’t deserve this kind of public mockery, we make them the butt of the joke too. Chris Crocker was right. Leave Britney alone.
Now for the most part, I’ve been critiquing cultural zeitgeists against women that I had no part in. You might think I’m declaring this from on high, free from being problematic merely by being born in a more enlightened time. Tweeting to the masses that [x] celebrity is cancelled for being problematic. Well, here’s the truth. We’re all fucking problematic and I’ve been in the mud-slinging pits like the rest of you. Two examples come to mind. I was just the right age to hate Twilight. I was 14 or so and saw most of my female peers get interested in a book that was targeted at them. A relatively harmless book and movie series that I decried as the end of Western literature. You know what, Twilight isn’t the worst. There, I said it. It is totally understandable that women attached themselves to the series. It was made for them, after all. And us assholes, we came in with her stupid protestations. Vampires don’t sparkle. According to who the fuck. Vampires are one of the most re-interpreted creatures in all of folklore and we have the gall, the audacity, to claim that vampires are one thing. Get out of here with that bullshit. I absolutely owe an apology to every female friend I had who I mocked for enjoying this book. I owe an apology to Stephanie Meyer, you’re not the devil and the harbinger of the fall of Western civilization.
The next example I want to make is the most recent. During my literature course at university, we were looking at all sorts of examples of media. Included in our units was a discussion of True Blood and the books they were based on. Here’s the thing. True Blood is all about them sexy vampires again, very much in the Anne Rice tradition. Now upon seeing the author of these books was a kindly looking older lady, we as a group of progressive art students began to rip into her. She looks like she runs the Church bake sale. She looks like she votes Republican. We were not very nice. I can’t recall the specific jabs but it was certainly in that direction. Not based on anything she did but based entirely on how she looked. One of the mature-aged students noted how unfair we were being. They were right. We were being totally unfair. We were a class of students who were studying a degree that is often characterised as a pretty progressive space and here we were mocking a successful author because of judgements we made based on looks.
Even the most progressive of us can try and tear successful women down. Some of us will uphold the Woody Allens and Louis CKs of the world but tear down women for much lesser sins. All of this to say, consider who we as a culture mock, because some of them may have got the short end of the stick.
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