In January 1998, America was shaken by the affair between sitting president Bill Clinton and former White House intern Monica Lewinsky. News about the affair was everywhere, from news channels to the tabloids, making it nearly impossible to avoid learning about the affair.
Unfortunately for Monica, the late 1990s America was not a welcoming place for strong, independent women who own their sexuality, and she was summarily slut-shamed by the entire country. The scandal provided an abundance of content for comedy writers to exaggerate the details to a greater degree than the news had done by making harsh attacks on Monica.
Looking back on the scandal from a 2021 perspective, it’s shocking to see the hatred and abuse Lewinsky had to endure, and especially at the hands of the popular comedy sketch show, Saturday Night Live.
Played by actress Molly Shannon, Monica Lewinsky was portrayed as a ditzy, inappropriate, and overly sexual woman. Shannon’s portrayal of Monica was so appalling, it appeared on Rolling Stone’s list of “20 Most Savage SNL Political Impersonations.” Looking at SNL comedy sketches from the late 90s in 2021, it is clear Monica’s public perception would not be the same today in regard to the blatant attacks on Monica as a person, the attacks on other women around the scandal, and the lack of attacks on Bill Clinton.
When the news first broke, SNL was quick to grab hold of the scandal and create a caricature of Monica that was not far off from the real public perception of her. Just weeks into the scandal, SNL aired their first skit portraying Monica alongside Linda Tripp, a close confidant played by John Goodman, during their meeting at the Ritz Carlton Hotel where Tripp was wired by the FBI.
Throughout the sketch, Monica makes various remarks that make her appear ditzy, such as when she talks about the last time she saw Bill Clinton at the White House screening of Titanic saying, “God that was so big and so long. I couldn’t believe it took two full hours for it to finally go down. I mean, I was really enjoying the whole thing, but it really surprised me when it bent in the middle.”
Even though the sketch has set it up as if she is talking about Titanic, given the scandal, it’s easy to see the parallels to sex and fellatio. This makes it so that she comes off as naïve, as what she is saying sounds sexual, even though she does not mean it in that way.
In a similar vein, Monica is wearing a dress with a white top and black skirt and tells Tripp that it is her “lucky dress.” When she takes off her jacket, there is a clear yellow stain that looks like a semen stain. Monica appears erotic, not realizing she has the stain, and once again, over sexual. While this was a caricature of Monica, it still highlighted the main ideas of how she was perceived as over sexualized, naïve, and ditzy. Reviewing this skit in 2021, the blatant attacks on Monica Lewinsky as a person — being portrayed as over sexualized, ditzy, and naïve — would not be accepted, and her sexuality would be an element of empowerment.
While SNL blatantly attacked Monica as a person, they did not stop there. The SNL sketches also attacked other women associated with the scandal and brought them down with her. Linda Tripp was the other major female player involved in the scandal and faced quite a bit of backlash because of it. Tripp’s role in the scandal was devious; she taped Monica Lewinsky, who was supposed to be her close friend.
On SNL, Tripp was portrayed by John Goodman, which in itself was quite a statement to have her played by a man, creating a caricature of her features that were criticized my the media as being too manly. This choice reveals how Tripp’s dedication and motivation to see her role in the scandal was an atypical attribute for women at the time. In another sketch from 1999, NBC interviewer Jamie Gangel, played by Ana Gasteyer, tells Tripp she has a worse approval rating than Saddam Hussein.
Tripp was not the only woman brought under attack alongside Monica Lewinsky. Although not directly involved in the scandal, Barbara Walters and Hillary Clinton were also brought into the sphere of the scandal through Walters’ interview with Monica Lewinsky, and Hillary Clinton being President Bill Clinton’s wife.
One particular 1999 sketch begins by showing real footage of Monica Lewinsky describing phone sex during her interview with Barbara Walters. Barbara Walters, played by Cheri Oteri, is re-watching this particular clip, intrigued in trying phone sex herself. As Walters goes through her address book, she makes comments about how many of the men she had already slept with, making her seem over-sexual in that she is always sleeping with men and looking to have sex.
Walters’ motivation and dedication to finding a phone sex partner is part of the joke of the scene, as she hits dead end after dead end, she says, “I’ve got to find someone as lonely and horny as I.”
It is then that she calls Hillary Clinton, portrayed by Gasteyer, who readily agrees. This once again reveals their over-sexual behaviors, and not in a good way. Looking at this skit from the perspective of 2021, it is surprising to see other women being dragged down with Monica Lewinsky just for being motivated, dedicated, and, once again, sexual.
As Monica Lewinsky and the women associated with the scandal were sexualized and attacked, Bill Clinton appeared to be sexy, innocent, and normal by the SNL sketches that he appeared in.
About a month after the first skit depicting Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp, a skit aired with Bill Clinton, portrayed by Darrell Hammond, reading off the Paula Jones deposition as though it was a romance novel. Clinton proclaims that, “I have read this thing cover to cover, and, folks, it’s good stuff. I mean, it is hotter than hell, and the best part is it’s all about me.”
A women in the late 90s would not be able to get away with a like Bill’s, even in the form of a comedy sketch. However, with men having all of the power in America in the 1990s, it was okay for President Clinton to be portrayed in this sexual manner. After reading an additional passage, he says, “And I actually did all that. I mean, I didn’t, but…”
While Monica Lewinsky was called a “whore” and slut-shamed by the entire country when she had an affair with one man, President Clinton was not put under the same scrutiny for the handful of sexual assault allegations brought up against him from various women. During a time when the phrase “boys would be boys” was an accepted reason for his behavior. Men were allowed to be sexual beings, while women were not allowed to own their sexuality.
In a sketch that aired in 1999 following the impeachment trial, Clinton, says he is upset since he is no longer featured in the papers. He even refers to himself as a “superstar” when he was constantly in the papers. Of course, this is a caricature of the actual situation, but the root of the matter is still there: the public had no issue with the way that Bill Clinton faced very few repercussions for his inappropriate actions. Today, men are being held accountable for inappropriate sexual advances and comments, which is unlike the culture in the late 90s. Through these sketches, it is shocking from a 2021 perspective that Bill Clinton was portrayed as sexy, innocent, and normal, and certainly not something he would have been able to get away with in 2021.
Depicting Monica Lewinsky as an over sexual, naive, and ditzy woman, turning Barbara Walters, Hillary Clinton, and Linda Tripp into sexual, deviant, and motivated women, while leaving Bill Clinton as a sexy, innocent, and normal man on SNL are not forms of portrayal that would be accepted in 2021.
Thankfully, society as a whole has been able to progress past the point of nationwide slut-shaming and has even welcomed conversations regarding sex and sexuality. However, SNL and society have done little to right the wrongs of the past by revisiting the public perception of Monica Lewinsky, who, in 2021, spends her time working as an anti-bullying activist and contributes to Vanity Fair. Today, Monica Lewinsky teaches us in 2021 about the importance of lifting women up and pushing for gender-based equality.
Understanding that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal took place just over 20 years ago puts into perspective how much positive change has taken place in society in such a short amount of time, but also how much further society has to go.
Image courtesy of YouTube.