Familiarity that speaks contempt

Monica, Diana, Jackie, Marilyn, Paula. You know exactly who they are: the women so famous that everyone has dispensed with their surnames.

Instantly recognisable in headlines, they need almost nothing in the way of context to make the reference intelligible. Nor does it strike us as odd that we call them by their first names, as though we are talking about friends or relatives. "Did you see Monica on TV last night?" people asked on Friday morning, going on to discuss her character, appearance and veracity. The general conclusion was that she was more natural than the Princess of Wales in her Panorama interview, the event that created the template for this type of confessional encounter.

I am not in a position to judge, having chosen not to watch Jon Snow's interview with Ms Lewinsky, just as I avoided seeing Martin Bashir's mild interrogation of the Princess in 1995. Not that I object to either woman putting her side of the story, especially in the case of Ms Lewinsky; she has been the target of a disgraceful campaign of vilification. What disturbs me is the way so many professional commentators affected surprise on Friday morning, remarking how well she came over. In the Daily Mail, Chris Evans remarked that "she was more amiable than any of us suspected - even if she didn't always seem entirely honest". In the Daily Telegraph, Charles Spencer applauded her performance as "frank, good-humoured and genuinely engaging". But why should anyone be surprised to discover that Ms Lewinsky is anything other than an attractive, naive and rather needy young woman who, like millions before her, got involved with an older man? Only because they have been influenced by claims that she was a "minx" or, in the words of Mr Spencer's own newspaper, a "semi-literate" Valley Girl.

The favourable response demonstrates the gap between the real woman and her media image, a disjunction which was obvious from previously published testimony. Until last week, however, Ms Lewinsky's press coverage appeared to have been contrived by journalists rooting about in some comically outdated lexicon of cheap sexual jibes against women. Now she has retrieved her reputation, but at a very high price, agreeing to discuss matters on television which most of us would flinch from revealing even to our best friend. Not long ago, the playwright Arthur Miller compared the impeachment process to a witch-hunt, with President Clinton as its victim, but the analogy seems more appropriate to the repeated grilling of Ms Lewinsky on intimate sexual matters. Most of her interlocutors have been men, recalling witch trials in which female defendants were routinely accused of insatiable lust and having sexual relations with the devil. Snow's questions about how the affair began and the stained dress must have been familiar, yet there is still something distasteful about the fact that he felt entitled to ask them.

Like the Princess, Ms Lewinsky has traded the final shreds of her privacy for approval. The celebrity she currently enjoys, although I doubt if that is the right verb, means she has joined a select group who are both public property - everyone has an opinion about them - and infantilised. In cultures where some wives still give up their surnames on marriage, these women have gone one step further into what is, perverse as it seems to suggest it, a species of anonymity. Ms Lewinsky has arrived at a pained realisation of this paradox, as she told Snow: "People didn't realise that behind the name Monica Lewinsky there was a person and behind that person there was a family, and that this was an experience for all of us." The Princess was struggling with a similar dilemma when she died in 1997. So is Paula Yates, whose attempt at a comeback as a TV presenter, 18 months after the suicide of her lover, produced damning headlines last week. Their stories are essentially old ones, about unhappy marriages and affairs, confirming what fools women are for love. If their experiences were made into movies, the soundtrack would be by Dusty Springfield, the high priestess of female masochism, who died last week. Her most famous songs such as "You Don't Have To Say You Love Me" express the childish yearning all women were supposed to feel towards their lovers. I cannot hear them without a shudder.

Yet there are still plenty of women who, when they have a raw deal, prefer to tell their stories through men, whether as interviewers or apologists. Last week Ms Lewinsky took this route, transforming herself overnight from sexual predator to an old-fashioned girl in the same mould as Princess Diana, with whom she shares a biographer. I hope she knows what she is doing. The First-Names Club, as I have come to think of it, is no place for grown-up women.