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Culture

Why no one wants to talk about Monica Lewinsky’s Jewishness — and why that matters

Midway through the trailer for the new FX series “Impeachment,” about the presidential sex scandal of the late-90s, the name of one of the show’s producers flashes conspicuously on screen. It’s the name you’d anticipate in connection with this story, but as a subject, not an architect. “MONICA LEWINSKY,” the text reads, highlighted briefly in royal blue, as it settles beneath a list of other producers.

Publicity surrounding “Impeachment,” which debuted Sept. 7, has flaunted Lewinsky’s involvement with the series as part of a larger marketing campaign foregrounding both Lewinsky and her fictional doppleganger, the actress Beanie Feldstein. Write-ups and interviews tout Feldstein and Lewinsky’s friendship and highlight both their biographies. The messaging is clear: Monica Lewinsky is Impeachment’s protagonist, and this is her version of events.

Given the effort to center both the women, it seems curious that most coverage of the show thus far has avoided mention of Feldstein’s and Lewinsky’s shared heritage: both of them Jews, both L.A. Jews at that. (One metric of Feldstein’s fairly high degree of public Jewishness — she was recently tapped to star in an upcoming Broadway production of “Funny Girl” in the role that made Barbra Streisand famous.) Despite the current overdue reckoning in entertainment surrounding representation, there seems to be a decided disinterest in examining the Jewish aspects of Lewinsky’s story, or of the show’s particular telling, which happens to include a Jewish actress.

This reticence isn’t surprising. In fact, it’s entirely of a piece with coverage of the affair itself, which was and remains self-consciously agnostic. At the time of the scandal, the limited references to Lewinsky’s heritage were wielded in the media as proof of its lack of bias. You can’t be antisemitic without a semite, and Lewinsky’s Jewish background was largely ignored. (There were the usual accusations that a cabal of Jews had sent Lewinsky to sow chaos in American politics, or something, but these were easily dismissed, allowing everyone else to feel virtuous by comparison.)

Paul Breines, a professor of history at Boston College, wrote in a retrospective on the affair in 2001, that “To be sure, Jew-haters, mainly on the Internet, did their thing. But in all the capacious mainstream, public discussion, the oral sex question completely displaced the Jewish one.”

But Monica, as everyone knew was Jewish — the earliest circulating photographs depicted Lewinsky attending her brother’s bar mitzvah, next to her father, who wore a kippah and a tallis — and much of her public flagellation reeked of unacknowledged antisemitism. In the hands of the press, the investigators, the American public and anyone else who spun the scandal into a story, Monica became a classic antisemitic caricature of the Jewish woman.

These tropes — what happens when antisemitism combines with misogyny — have mutated over the course of American history. Riv-Ellen Prell, a scholar of Jewish-American culture who wrote about the topic for the Jewish Women’s Archive, sorts them into a cast of characters, including the Ghetto Girl, the Jewish Mother, the Vulgar Jewish Woman, and the Jewish-American Princess.

These archetypes differ in particularities, but in general essence, evince the same fundamental fear about Jewish women: that they exhibit inappropriate desire. The Jewish woman wants too much, wants the wrong things, wants these things too openly. She strives to imitate some wealthier, more glamorous, better looking, and presumably less ethnically-othered version of herself. The American-Jewish woman’s inappropriate desires lead her to excessive consumption — of clothing, food, sex, anything.

From the earliest coverage of Lewinsky’s role in the affair, media depictions shaped Monica into an antisemitic caricature. The Drudge Report, in some of its first writing on the subject, reported on a conversation “WHERE LEWINSKY ALLEGEDLY CONFIDED THAT SHE KEPT A GARMENT WITH CLINTON’S DRIED SEMEN ON IT — A GARMENT SHE SAID SHE WOULD NEVER WASH!”

Before any humanizing details about Lewinsky could emerge, she had already become a hyperrealized vision of Jewish femininity. She was psycho Monica, obsessive, infatuated. Mind of a social-reject child, body of someone’s matron aunt. She was aggressive and needy and voraciously in love.

In the version of Monica that emerged as the scandal unfolded, her pursuit of Bill was seen as being motivated by an immature delusion which was also somehow simultaneously a precise calculation aimed at professional and social success. This was because, like the prototypical Jewish-American woman, Monica, as depicted by the late-90s American Media, was obsessed by status.

Many believed Lewinsky was using her relationship with the president to improve her job prospects. Maureen Dowd described her in the Times as “the girl who was too tubby to be in the high school ‘in’ crowd” — as though Monica’s obsession with her social position were a birthright, so innate to her personality it had existed since early adolescence.

This comment brings us to the vitriol leveled at Monica’s body, which was presented as symbolizing a failure to curb her own appetite. It was reported that she had attended fat camp as a child; her walk was described as a “waddle.” In a bizarre piece called “I Dated Monica Lewinsky” by a then-unknown Jake Tapper, the future CNN anchor wrote that “Right off, Monica was different from the standard D.C. date: not a salad-picker, she joined me in appetizers and an actual entree of her own.”

In one particularly egregious “Saturday Night Live” sketch (which, to be fair, levels equal doses of fatphobia toward Linda Tripp and Lewinsky), Molly Shannon as Monica gorges herself on fast food, soda and chips. “Look, I don’t care about being beautiful,” she insists between chews. ”What I care about is being thin. Thin. That’s all I care about. Thin.”

“What are you eating?” John Goodman as Linda Tripp asks later in the sketch. “Just some, um, some grapes. And some water,” Shannon-as-Lewinsky responds.

For the American public too naive to identify Monica’s relationship to food as the result of a broader sinful (and Jewish) carnality, Maureen Dowd helpfully combined them into one piece. (The writer Amanda Hess compiled some of Dowd’s cruelest remarks about Lewinsky, many of which intersect with antisemitic stereotypes of Jewish women).

After passing Lewinsky at dinner one night, Dowd reported on the contents of Lewinsky’s plate, as though it could possibly matter what she ate to anyone but a readership obsessed with vilifying her desires. Dowd explained Lewinsky’s choice of restaurant, which was White-House proximate, by insisting that “the former intern was still trying to grab the president’s attention, like some love-struck teen-ager, loitering outside Billy Clinton’s biology class.” Monica’s uncouth sexual impulses, her deranged pursuit of the president, and her unwomanly meal selection combine here into base hedonism.

The Monica depicted in late-90s popular culture embodied the worst of misogynistic antisemitic stereotypes. Monica giggled too much. She was crass, libidinal, tasteless. She ate too much food and purchased tacky clothing and consumed (quite literally, as no one in the media-literate world would let anyone else forget) the discharge of a very powerful man; consumed, in fact, his whole career, and briefly in her excessive consumption, managed to eat right through the stability of the American empire.

That the media and the American public were awful to Monica during this time isn’t news. Recent years have seen an increasingly popular trend of reexamining the scandal with a more generous eye toward Lewinsky’s gender, age and relative lack of power. Much of this revision has pointed out the unfairness of the coverage. In think pieces and podcasts and online and in classrooms, we have begun to redress some of the abuse she endured. “Impeachment” is the latest in this series of attempts.

Monica Lewinsky

Monica Lewinsky attends the premiere of FX’s “Impeachment: American Crime Story.” By Getty Images

It’s encouraging to see a level-minded approach, one which extends empathy toward Lewinsky, become our prevailing cultural narrative of the scandal. The cruelty directed toward Monica in this new framework is often identified as misogyny, clear and simple. But the treatment leveled at Lewinsky wasn’t clear or simple. It was clouded by antisemitism, something no one wanted to talk about then, and something which contemporary revisions of the scandal seem no more willing to address. In our haste to correct the narrative, these well-intended attempts to rewrite the affair effectively deracinate Lewinsky.

In this new narrative, we position Lewinsky as a figure manipulated by the press, the president, his investigators. Monica becomes coltish and quivering, stoic in the face of great evil. We insist her lust was appropriate and reasonable, that she was naive and pitiable. She becomes a sweet girl coming to terms with her sexuality and acting on an immature impulse.

Monica Lewinsky wasn’t the stereotype of the awful Jewish gargoyle the world made her into, but she wasn’t a prim model of polite WASP-y femininity, either. She had a noisy personality. She coveted. She was brash. She had uncovered the fantastic power of her body and she was really pleased about it. She wore bad outfits and ate real food. She wanted and she took.

She enjoyed some aspects of her celebrity. She occasionally played into the attention. She once had the president sign a photo of himself and mail it to her former lover. She sometimes came off as self-satisfied. Who can blame her? She seduced the President of the United States. The most powerful human alive at that time was, in a small way for a few moments at a time, under her control. That’s awesome. Of course she thought highly of herself.

There was nothing inherently Jewish about this behavior. And none of her actions merited the abuse she received or the suffering it wrought. But our rush to identify the great evil done to Lewinsky ultimately presents her as a martyr, either figuring her as a victim or a warrior for the feminist cause. She becomes a different, less colorful character in an equally flat if more sympathetic story. The real Monica exists somewhere in between the Jewish stereotype and the doe-eyed gentile. Let’s not erase her in our haste to correct decades of genuinely cruel mischaracterization.

A crucial component of the media’s most mean-spirited characterization of Monica during the scandal was an underlying delight in her inability to attain what she desired. This is what made Monica so pathetic, and also so archetypally Jewish. Her cardinal sin was not simply caring about being hot, popular, rich, well-dressed and famous; it was failing to attain these qualities. This failure trapped her in a perpetual state of wanting. You can only desire that which you lack.

Most stereotypes are cruel and unfair; most seek to control the unknown by demeaning it. Most stereotypes are false. Sometimes they are a little bit true. Monica Lewinsky desired excessively. Seeking a sexual entanglement with the President of the United States is an excessive desire. But crucially: Monica got what she wanted. Sometimes that happens, too.

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