Greetings from sunny San Francisco!
I write you this overdue newsletter from the eye of the capitalist storm we call holiday season here in the US.
I have thought of writing this newsletter for weeks. I have thought about what I wanted to say and how I wanted to say it. I’ve saved links and hot takes that I wanted to share, yet the words for this essay never came.
Meanwhile, the dozens of other newsletters I subscribe to piled up in my inbox. I read some, skimmed others, and ignored others entirely. The thing is, for most writers of this unruly medium we call the newsletter, there is no editor. I have a few friends who read my drafts, but like many other newsletter writers, I do not have an editor telling me to cut back on my word count or to streamline my ideas. Alas, this is the problem with the newsletter as a form. So, while other writers more verbose or disciplined (or perhaps just those with paying subscribers) continued to send out their newsletters as promised, I did not.
You see, I’ve always been of the mindset that if I don’t have something original to say, I’m better off saying nothing at all. And when it comes to writing and publishing, I’m even harder on myself. Before I write a piece of criticism, I try to read everything that’s been published on the topic. I don’t do this to copy ideas; I do it to avoid being redundant.
In my writing, I developed the habit of engaging with other critics’ on the page. I did this until an editor called me out, telling me that I didn’t need to write a rebuttal to something that some inflammatory critic had written that went against my argument. I needed to own my argument. I didn’t have to play defense in my writing. I, the author, could play offensive. I could play my own game altogether.
Anyway, to get to the point: I’ve wanted to write about “Impeachment: American Crime Story” for weeks, but I wanted to finish watching the entire season before doing so. I wanted to be thorough.
As the weeks ticked by, with the series releasing one episode per week, I read critiques of the show. Though “Impeachment” was positioned to be the hottest show of the season—with a star-studded cast including Beanie Feldstein and Sarah Paulson—it received almost entirely negative reviews.
Critics claimed that the casting decisions were offensive. The show didn’t go deep enough. Its non-linear timeline was confusing. It didn’t add enough to the conversation.But the thing about these critiques (except for the ones about fat suits and prosthetics, which I’ll allow) is that they assume the viewer to be the same as the critic, and in most cases the critic is someone with a deep understanding of the events around the Paula Jones lawsuit, the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, and Clinton’s impeachment.
In January of 1998, when the Drudge Report broke the story, I was just shy of seven years old. I barely knew how to write in cursive, and I’d only just begun to learn my multiplication tables. I didn’t actually know how babies were made, yet I could successfully identify Monica Lewinsky whenever I saw her photo in magazines and on TV.
I vividly remember reading next to my mom on her bed one night. I was probably reading a chapter book and she was probably reading the New York Times. Printed in the newspaper was a group photograph. President Clinton stood in the front, and behind him stood a woman whose face was circled.
“Who is that?” I asked my mom.
This is where my memory blurs. I don’t recall what exactly my mom told me in response, but over the months (and years) that the story circulated in the media, I was not shielded from the general sentiments around the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. I did not know what oral sex was (because I didn’t know what any kind of sex was), but I came to understand that there had been an inappropriate relationship between the President and a woman who was not his wife.
Oh, and one more thing.
I knew that if I stuck a tape recorder in my shirt and told my parents’ friends that I was Linda Tripp, they would laugh. At age seven I was not a malicious person. The grownups I knew were not malicious people, either. The culture was malicious, and it took more than two decades before I dedicated much headspace to reconsidering the story.
“Impeachment” encourages viewers to revisit the events of the late 90s with a different perspective. It encouraged me to revisit something I was vaguely familiar with as a child with the sensibility of someone a decade older than Lewinsky was then. It encouraged me to think about power imbalances and young heartbreak and the naïveté of a 22-year-old.
In the wake of #MeToo, Lewinsky’s story is just one of many we’ve been encouraged to revisit. (I’ve previously shared the link to this essay about the limits of young women’s agency, which I still think about all the time, and recently, the ten minute version of ‘All Too Well’ that Taylor Swift released on “Red (Taylor’s Version)” explores similar issues.)
One of the most painful scenes in “Impeachment” occurs in the second-to-last episode. Monica is questioned under oath about whether or not she achieved orgasm in any of her encounters with President Clinton. When she confirms that she did, this is used by lawyers to prove that Clinton committed perjury when he said that he did not engage in sexual relations (because, in his “understanding” of the definition, sexual relations involved the intent to arouse.) Though I recalled Clinton’s infamous sexual relations line from the 90s, at the time I did not know or understand how Monica’s experience of pleasure was weaponized against her.
The show, for which the real Monica Lewinsky was a producer, isn’t a high-sheen PR cleanup job about what happened. Instead, it paints Monica as a complicated, flawed, deeply human character.
“Impeachment” was never intended to be a comprehensive dive into all of Bill Clinton’s misdeeds, or even into the entire timeline of his impeachment; there are other books and podcasts for that. Instead, the show is a character study of a few of the women in Clinton’s orbit, none of whom survive unscathed. We see Paula Jones’s legal bills pile up. We watch Monica Lewinsky’s life unravel. We hear Juanita Broaddrick say that Bill Clinton raped her. We watch Hillary Clinton discover her husband lied to her. We see Linda Tripp villainized on late night TV. Even Tripp, who in many ways serves as the show’s antagonist, is painted as a deeply complex woman who felt wronged by her employer, disgusted with her president, and convinced that she was doing the right thing.
Perhaps “Impeachment” doesn’t add any enlightening information to the conversation, but it adds another perspective in another medium. Just as I’ve come to learn that every piece of criticism doesn’t have to argue with everything else that’s been said, every show based on historical events doesn’t have to match the expectations of all critics or viewers, especially those with a deep understanding of the historical context.
Just as Taylor Swift uses the passage of time, as well as her fame to take up space—well, actually time (and 10 minutes and 13 seconds of it at that)—“Impeachment” provides similar space for Monica Lewinsky. And for viewers like me, who were in second grade when the events of the show took place, the show feels like enough.
Watching: Call My Agent! | Nine Perfect Strangers | Succession | The Pursuit of Love
Reading: “To Breed or Not to Breed” | Whiteness and the aesthetics of ‘sapphic anthems’ | The messiest and most spectacular cakes you’ve ever seen | When it comes to vintage bathrooms, “the kitsch is the point.” | The publishing-to-Hollywood pipeline | “An Ode to Barbecue Potato Chips” | The waste of packaging from all our purchases
Eating: Pumpkin Bread with Maple Glaze (added some molasses + black pepper + cardamom + cloves because I like it 🌶 !) | Though it may be over now, I got very into passionfruit szn, using 3 lbs. of it to make this and this.
Thanks for tuning in!
Old habits (engaging with other critics) die hard!