We were sitting around over drinks discussing a wide range of subjects, everything from anthrax to Buddhism, deftly avoiding the C-word, when our hostess leaped out of the kitchen. “You’ve been here for 45 minutes, and I haven’t heard a word about you-know-what!” A veteran journalist herself, she wasn’t about to allow us to pretend we were somehow above the subject on everyone’s lips. Released from our high-mindedness, we plunged into Bill Clinton’s Internal Affair and spent the rest of the evening in heated argument. By the end of dinner, my old friend M.W. and I were barely speaking, locked in fierce disagreement as to whether Monica was more sinned against than sinning.
Tailgate has become a litmus test for all sorts of conflicting social attitudes, unresolved and unresolvable because, like a three-way collision between ideology, Realpolitik and sexual fantasy, they exist on different planes of reality. Foulmouthed feminists, virtuoso punsters, our aggressively bawdy language is not so much a sign of liberation as a defense against confusion and anarchy.
Clinton Meets Monica has replaced Deconstructing Harry as the spectacle that requires a reaction, that defines where we stand on the spectrum between tolerance and disapproval. Reactions differ along sexual lines. Is the leading man a schmuck who should be hung out to dry or a special-case superstud who deserves carte blanche? Generally speaking, men support Woody Allen’s Harry while women, feeling despised, despise him in return. In Clinton Meets Monica, on the other hand, women either swoon in approbation or forgive the schmoozingly lascivious good-on-the-issues President while men cry “Stupido!” and call for his resignation.
It’s as if we were looking at the work of a particularly inept filmmaker whose tone remains unclear. Is it satire or melodrama? Political intrigue or soap opera? The blurring of genres is part of the problem.
In Texas, lecturing on the image of women in film, I asked the audience to conjure up the most famous “still” from the Clinton Meets Monica movie, the close-up of a goggle-eyed, beret-wearing groupie whose manic enthusiasm radiates back to the President the voltage we know, even from the back view, he is generating. Then I said, O.K., which movie is it? Fatal Attraction ? Working Girl ? Or Misery ?
No self-respecting screenwriter would leave the moral status of the characters so ambiguous, and even in the ads we would understand where Monica belonged-was she a star or a supporting player, a virgin or a whore, femme fatale or innocent victim? We didn’t know whether to think of her as an ingenuous 21 or a wised-up 24. The semiotics were blurry. Fashionwise, we’d have been given more legible clues: Was she Donna Karan or Valley Girl clueless? (By contrast, Paula Jones and Gennifer Flowers were big-hair babes out of central casting.) There would be a tag line portraying her as harasser or harassee. Fatal Attraction started out as the story of a guy who betrayed his wife and paid the price, but wound up as a monster movie with a mad career woman in pursuit of a beleaguered, penitent husband.
The movie touched nerves across the board, appealing to feminists at one moment, traditionalists at another, precisely because it played different chords, reflecting our uncertainty about who is responsible in a new world of emancipated women and ostensible sexual equality. It also suggested why trying to legislate sexual activity in the workplace by defining it as discrimination under civil rights laws is a fool’s errand. What happens in the bedroom or under the desk or behind the filing cabinet is anybody’s guess, shifts according to the point of view and changes in the retelling. Remember the exchange between Michael Douglas and Glenn Close after she refuses to honor the tacit “no-strings” agreement of the one-night stand. Michael Douglas: “You broke the rules.” Glenn Close: “There are no rules.”
This area, murky by definition, is what brought M.W. and me to an impasse. I said I thought Monica was a bit of a tart and complicitous in the whole debacle, while M.W., claiming the intern was a pawn in the hands of scheming politicians, called me harsh and unfeeling. I imagined us each with a puffy thought balloon over our heads saying, “How could this person be my friend and be so obtuse!”
We complain that Hollywood only gives us cartoon characters, heroes and villains in black and white, but we can’t tolerate so many shades of gray. She kept accusing me of portraying Monica as villain, I charged her with “victim feminism.” Our furious tongue-lashings and stony silences were a reminder of how personal such things are, how impossible to adjudicate objectively. We bring our own experience, fears, unconscious resistances, and now she and I were both age 21. At the woman’s college I attended, a certain student was rumored to have had, or to be having, an affair with Jack Kennedy. Given what we know now, I think it unlikely that there was a single women’s college which hadn’t yielded at least one of its flowers to the steamroller of J.F.K.’s charm. There seems to be special dispensation if the guy is powerful enough or cute enough. The subtext is always a commodities exchange in the form of sex appeal. That’s why it’s absurd that a fanatic like Catharine MacKinnon has set the agenda for harassment legislation in institutions around the country. Going after pornography leaves untouched the real abusers of power-the rich and the mighty and the charismatic, whose campaign trails are littered with willing women.
Most people grant Mr. Clinton the lion’s share of the blame, but the controversy arises over how much leverage Monica had. Was she, as one columnist suggested, not an innocent prey but a Lolita secretly snickering at her flabby, middle-aged lover? She certainly wasn’t in awe of him: The terms she uses to her friend Linda Tripp are laced with contempt, not the purr of a smitten kitten.
In defense of Monica, M.W. (or her 21-year-old self, or rather, her middle-aged fantasy of her 21-year-old self) said the words I’ve been hearing from all too many of my friends. “I’d have done it in a second!”
I was shocked. “Then you’d have been a tart, or a star-f–er,” I said. Was this bravado on her part, or straitlaced primness on mine? Am I jealous of her relative freedom as young woman, and moralistically disapproving? Taking sex into the public arena has opened the floodgates on dirty talk. Lit up by the rush of adrenaline and identification-who needs antidepressants when we’ve got sexy disasters?-we’re all degraded by the language we use.
If women imagine jumping into bed with Billy boy, Mr. Clinton’s oozy therapy style has invited this pillow-talk intimacy. And the men, in a less forgiving mood, call for blood purportedly because of Mr. Clinton’s stupidity, when the real reason is he’s getting laid with a frequency, ease and impunity they would never enjoy.
My own feeling is that the Clinton-Monica escapade is not hugely important in itself, but is part of a pattern of slippery, sleazy, quasi-illegal and grossly irresponsible behavior that has spread a thick layer of viscosity over the land. We who voted for him or have profited from his Presidency or who’ve made jokes about his anatomy are all in bed with Bill Clinton. Maybe it’s time to get out.