Saturday, May 17, 2014

If Feminists Failed Monica in 1998, Did New York Feminists Fail Lis in 2014?

In the past week, feminist writers have looked back on Monica’s treatment by many feminists and liberal intellectuals at the time and declared that everyone could have done better. But are we doing better now? The feminism we see now has grown more diverse and more inclusive, with Twitter campaigns challenging white feminists and the ability of a single video bashing Robin Thicke to go viral and create notoriety that will help build a feminist activist’s channel. A blog hits the right nerve at the right time and is reposted on the right website and suddenly we’re talking about transgender women and feminism. But more often than not, feminists with real clout are part of a mostly white, straight, Ivy League-educated group from middle class backgrounds, and that can affect what feminists focus on. Oddly enough, in feminism, you still have to be the right kind of woman to merit said support. We’ve seen this recently, in the case of Lis Smith.

In her interview with Vanity Fair last week, Monica Lewinsky said that feminists had failed her. I agree, to the extent that many mainstream feminists did not acknowledge Bill Clinton’s part in the affair, placing blame and ridicule squarely on Monica’s shoulders. She was either a dimwitted bimbo looking for cheap thrills or a calculating asexual young woman, looking to influence one of the most powerful men in the world. Now, she has been portrayed (at the time) of being a naïve young girl who was taken advantage of – by Congressman Rand Paul.

It is unlikely that any of these caricatures capture the truth of what actually happened, and who Lewinsky was at the time. She was 23, and old enough to know better, but the president was the president, married and in his 50s. The reduction of this young woman to a handful of gendered stereotypes was reason enough to defend her. Feminists need not have called her a helpless victim in order to defend her. A one-sided attack, in which a woman is depicted as someone who failed in her role as a sexual gatekeeper, and a man is depicted as a helpless oaf, should always be countered by feminists – not supported by them. But not all feminists railed against Lewinsky. Many simply stayed mum.

After all, one of the first things that Clinton did in his presidency was sign a series of executive orders that undid the Reagan-Bush era policies that restricted family planning and abortion and he vetoed a partial birth abortion ban – not an easy stance to take at the time. Betty Friedan called Lewinsky a “little twerp” and Katie Roiphe admitted that she hadn’t seen mainstream feminists support Lewinsky in the New York Observer article “New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez.” Although Roiphe is not by any means a model feminist or necessarily a feminist at all (she has been largely criticized by feminists) she was aware of the dialogue on Lewinsky the time. Maureen Dowd, author of the book “Are Men Necessary?” which examined the benefits and drawbacks of being in a relationship with a man as well as balancing career and domestic duties, is the same woman who won a Pulitzer Prize for portraying her as a crazy, promiscuous and vapid.

Most recently, we have a case that is very different from Monica’s – in which the woman in question – Lis Smith – did not actually do anything wrong. Lis Smith, who ran Bill de Blasio’s communications efforts, committed the crime of dating Elliot Spitzer. Spitzer and his wife, Silda Wall Spitzer, filed divorce papers in mid-January, which does not come as any surprise to watchers of New York politics. Andrea Peyser tore apart Smith’s character as if it were 1998, or earlier, using odd old-timey language to decimate her character, such as “youngish cookie,” “hot and fit political insider,” and predictably, “bimbo,” adding that she does “presumably not charge Eliot for service rendered.”

With the exception of Jen Chung at The Gothamist, Ginia Bellafante at The New York Times and Lindy West at Jezebel, not many feminist writers or reporters jumped on the story, or rushed to defend Smith in the midst of Peyser’s attacks. There were a few tweets calling Peyser sexually repressed from male journalists, but not many insights from the feminist peanut gallery. It’s not hard to see why from a purely superficial reading of the situation and the people involved.

In the eyes of many feminists or liberal opinion writers in general, you have an unsympathetic man (Eliot Spitzer), a woman who isn’t famous and largely keeps to herself and a sympathetic man (Bill de Blasio). Is it worth challenging de Blasio, the newest liberal darling for hopeful progressives, a man whose life story couldn’t be more picturesque and supportive of liberal ideals, and who may run for president someday? No. Not when it’s your man. And in this respect, it isn’t very different from Clinton, despite Smith’s personal life being completely immaterial to the workings of de Blasio’s administration.

If anything, this case is much more deserving of outrage. You have a evidence of the new, progressive America in de Blasio, rejecting the commercial interests of Michael Bloomberg, who is supportive of the middle class, people of color, LGBTQ rights and women’s rights. Or at least that is the narrative. If the mayor had consensual sex with an intern it would be more moral and feminist than tossing out an employee because of whom she sees outside of work. Instead of standing up to and questioning the outrage over Smith’s dating life, and using it as a teachable moment to discuss gender and politics, de Blasio simply gave up. If prolific and well-respected feminists – a group mostly based in New York – have any credibility, they will raise the issue if he ever becomes a contender for president or vice president. If they don’t, Republicans surely will, the way Rand Paul did by raising the ghost of the blue dress. Only this time, it may be effective, because Democrats won’t be able to defend it. 

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