Dumb brunette, bunny boiler, Valley Girl, minx, victim, fool for love. Who is Monica Lewinsky and what does she want?
Wednesday 23 September 1998
See her photographed in kitschy outfits by Herb Ritts in Vanity Fair. See her suicidal, devastated at destroying the man she claims to love. See her as the anti-Hillary, dumb and blowsy and impressionable. See her as a potential bunny-boiler, Fatal Attraction-style, unable and unwilling to let her man go. See her as a little girl lost who believes that Mr President will leave his wife for her. See her as a spoilt Valley Girl who certainly expects something for nothing, because that's what she is accustomed to. See her above all in the words of that expert on women, Alan Clark, as "a randy little minx".
All of this, of course, is a way of not seeing her at all. Though her image is everywhere, it has already become iconic. The full lips, the curtain of hair are given to Warholian reproduction. She looks good in black and white. Despite her make-over, the shoes, the suit, the oh-so- sensible handbag, colour betrays Monica. She still looks too fleshy, like she's trying too hard to look like a good girl. So we should not be surprised that she is overblown, this blow-up doll - and we aren't. No, what shocks us is that she should have real emotions; misguided, maybe, but heartfelt nonetheless; that she should be embarrassed about revealing the sexual details of her affair with the President, and that she should feel so hurt by his public pronouncements about her.
Since last week's publication of the Starr report and this week's release of her full testimony to the grand jury, it has become more and more difficult to slot Monica into any of the stereotypes on hand. If we want to view her as little more than a sexual opportunist, then her adolescent obsession with Clinton indicates that she doesn't have the required cynicism. From the minute she meets him she feels "an intense connection" with him. She falls in love with "the big creep". "I thought he had a beautiful soul," she gushes. "When I looked at him, I saw a little boy."
At several points while giving testimony, Monica burst into tears. Indeed the bodily fluid that seems to have been exchanged more than any other between Monica and Bill is salt water. Monica cries when she thinks of what has happened. Clinton's eyes water when he thinks of what might happen as a result. He told the grand jury that Monica sometimes got very distraught. "She got upset from time to time", especially when he couldn't or wouldn't see her. However he also revealed some affection for Monica. If this was spin then it was good spin. For the first time in this whole sordid episode, what emerges is the possibility that this was a consensual relationship based on mutual affection. Clinton will have done more for his poll ratings by speaking kindly of Monica than by portraying himself as the passive recipient of oral sex. In this way he truly has been guilty of turning Monica into little more than a dehumanised receptacle.
Yet if Lewinsky is not an opportunist, we know too much of her background to see her as a wronged innocent. In some ways she clearly knew what she was doing. In some. Not all. Dubbed "the clutch" by her White House colleagues, she would not let go of someone's hand if she thought they were important. She came to Clinton with a string of affairs with married men behind her and a reputation, if not as a liar, then certainly as an exaggerator. She was once sent home from the White House for wearing a dress that was too revealing. She was pushy and bubbly. We see her now in new photographs thrusting her way forward, smiling her big smile as she cozies up to the President. Yet all this self-confidence hides what the shrinks like to call "neediness", and Monica in her begging letters comes across as very needy indeed. "Please do not do this to me," she writes, underlining each word. She feels disposable and used. She is desperate to believe that the President can't live without her when it must be apparent that he can.
While the rest of the world is by turns disgusted and titillated by details of blow-jobs, fumblings and antics with cigars, one vital detail has been ignored. We find it easier in some ways to deal with the finer points of fellatio than we do with the feelings that Clinton and Lewinsky may have had for each other. This may be because three or more languages are being spoken here. There is the intense and paternalistic legalese of Starr and his cronies, the romantic tosh that Monica spouts and the more "mature" outlook of Clinton.
Clinton may now speak of himself as a broken spirit, but by all accounts it is Monica who is broken. He still gets standing ovations. If Clinton insists she was having sex with him while he was not having sex with her, it now looks as if she was having a relationship with him even if he wasn't having one with her. "I know it sounds soooooooo ridiculous, but I can't get him out of my heart," she wrote. "I love him a lot. I know it's stupid. I want to hug him so bad ... I could cry." Lewinsky often sounds like this. Gushing, sentimental and coy about sex. She sounds, in fact, about 13.
This combination of knowing sexual technique and emotional immaturity is what makes Monica both so hard to classify and yet so recognisable - she is neither victim nor vamp. Other women have been amazingly cruel about her. She is too big, too clumsy and tacky to be a stylish scarlet women. If Clinton has an appetite for junk food that he knows is bad for him, these big-haired, soft-lipped women like Monica represent junk sex. The charge against her is that she knew what she was doing, therefore she was in no way abused. Yet to read her testimony is to see that of course she was used by the most powerful man in the world. She gave him oral sex in return for what? The fantasy that she was important, that what she thought mattered, that when it came down to it, it wasn't just about sex.
Yet how can we ask Monica the truth about sex when she wants to talk about love, and how can we ask her lover the truth when he denies the sex? After Clinton made his "apology" on 17 August, Monica revealed the full extent of her confusion. "What I took away was that I didn't know what the truth was. And so how could I know the truth of my love for someone if it was based on him being an actor?" No wonder there is a sense of unreality about Monica. She moves in a world where self-deception and delusion is an art form. In the dysfunctional mall of a childhood called Beverly Hills, many things can take the place of love: credit cards, power, celebrity, sex. Her father, who came to America as the child of German Jewish refugees who had fled from the Nazis, ended up running a profitable string of cancer clinics. He may not have been around for his daughter, but both she and her mother were able to "max out" on credit cards in the stores of Rodeo Drive.
Monica soon realised that present-buying was a way of achieving popularity. Then she started to give men other kinds of presents - as the President has found to his cost. Monica, then, is a girl who grew up knowing the cost of everything and the value of nothing, who finds it difficult to know when she is lying and when others are lying. She is a material girl in a material world but look how she seeks something other than the trappings of wealth, something that talks of the soul.
For what we cannot cope with about Monica is her appetite and her desire. We already know about Bill, and anyway, men are allowed appetites. Women are not and yet here we have Monica, overweight and over-sexed: a woman who wants too much is always too dangerous. And in wanting the most powerful man in the world to fall in love with her, Monica really did expect too much.
But as the world knows everything there is to know about the kind of sex she had, Monica, we find, has been talking to the grand jury about love. "When you look at it now, was it love or sexual obsession?" a juror asked her.
"More love," she responded, "with a little bit of obsession, but definitely love." Inappropriate intimate contact? It's neither here nor there. Only love can break your heart.
And why are 'southern' ways of speaking spreading north?
life + styleClarissa Baldwin is the brains behind the slogan 'A Dog is for Life not just for Christmas'
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