Impeachment: American Crime Story -- Pictured: Beanie Fieldstein as Monica Lewinsky.
Monica Lewinsky 'proud' of TV series on Clinton scandal
01:57 - Source: CNN

Editor’s Note: Nicole Hemmer is an associate research scholar at Columbia University with the Obama Presidency Oral History Project and the author of “Messengers of the Right: Conservative Media and the Transformation of American Politics.” She co-hosts the history podcasts “Past Present” and “This Day in Esoteric Political History” and is co-producer of the podcast “Welcome To Your Fantasy.” The views expressed in this commentary are those of the author. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

The story of then-President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in 1998 has long been told as a story of political overreach driven by the excessive appetites of men: Clinton’s insatiable sexual appetites, Independent Counsel Ken Starr’s obsessive investigation, Republican House Speaker Newt Gingrich’s drive to remove his political nemesis from office. The women in the story most often appeared in both media coverage and political discourse to be a mixture of two-dimensional victims and villains serving in preassigned roles: the helpless ingénue, the scorned wife, the flirtatious temptress, the scheming friend.

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But what if the women, rather than being relegated to stock characters, were at the center of the narrative? That’s the approach of FX’s new series, “American Crime Story: Impeachment.” The first episode opens on the tear-soaked face of Monica Lewinsky, a young woman whose sex life has thrust her unwillingly into a thicket of betrayals and deceptions. Lewinsky, portrayed in the series by Beanie Feldstein, found herself caught in 1998 in an abusive legal system with a team of investigators threatening to destroy her life if she failed to cooperate. (Not to mention her relationship with Clinton himself, which in 2018 she described as one defined by a power imbalance: “The road that led there was littered with inappropriate abuse of authority, station, and privilege.”)

Sarah Paulson’s Linda Tripp – the Pentagon employee who secretly taped her conversations with Lewinsky and ultimately betrayed her to Starr’s team – is the focus of this first episode, which revolves tellingly around a network of women who laid the groundwork (some more willingly than others) for Clinton’s impeachment.

By mapping that network, the series transforms a key episode in American history from one about the flaws of men into one about the agency of women. Seen from this vantage point, it becomes a story of power, politics, social relations and sex that is as much a product of the 2020s as it is a reflection on the 1990s.

The new series comes at a timely moment, in the midst of a broader cultural reassessment of both the 1990s and the women who were for so long the butt of jokes rather than main characters in their own stories. It’s impossible to miss the reevaluation of the 1990s unfolding in popular culture during the last few years.

American Crime Story,” now in its third season, has chosen stories all rooted in the 1990s: impeachment, the O.J. Simpson trial and the murder of Gianni Versace. The Slate podcast “Slow Burn,” which also spent a season on impeachment, stuck to the 1990s for a season on the White supremacist David Duke and another on the rap rivalry between Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, which ended when both men were murdered in the mid-1990s.

In political culture, the 1990s loom large, because they seem to be the starting point of so many of the trends that define our politics today: the return of America First politics in the presidential campaigns of Pat Buchanan, the expansion of punditry and political entertainment with the launch of MSNBC and Fox News, the sharp rise in political polarization and right-wing radicalization.

But another equally important trend has been the rediscovery of women who had at one time been mocked and maligned, entering the national dialogue as punchlines. Case in point: In the middle of the first episode of “American Crime Story: Impeachment,” an ad aired for a new movie, “The Eyes of Tammy Faye,” which trains the spotlight on the wife of televangelist Jim Bakker as the couple’s Praise The Lord ministry-slash-fundraising-scam collapses into bankruptcy and Jim Bakker’s incarceration for felony fraud.

The women of the 1990s, in particular, have come in for re-evaluation in recent years. The #MeToo movement resurrected the story of Anita Hill, whose testimony against Clarence Thomas during his 1991 Supreme Court nomination hearing gave a generation of Americans a way of talking about workplace sexual harassment. The 2017 film “I, Tonya,” set in 1994 after her ex-husband engineered an attack on fellow figure skater Nancy Kerrigan, complicated and softened the public image of Tonya Harding. And Britney Spears, who became a household name in 1999 with her debut album “… Baby One More Time” and a cautionary tale following a public meltdown in the mid-2000s, has received a far more sympathetic appraisal in the recent coverage of her conservatorship.

Monica Lewinsky fits squarely in this retelling of the work and experiences of women in the 1990s, as well as broader efforts to grapple with the influence of the decade on our current political travails.

Political power, particularly in relation to the presidency, has long been filtered through a series of social relations: family connections, personal friendships, sexual relationships, professional ties. For much of US history, men have dominated those relations – and the stories about them – leaving women, who often played critically important political roles, to languish on the margins. But as this retelling of the impeachment story shows, women have exercised far more power and agency than popular histories generally reflect.

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    That power is on display in “American Crime Story: Impeachment.” It’s there in Annaleigh Ashford’s Paula Jones and her decision to sue the President for sexual harassment at a time when a public understanding of workplace harassment was still limited at best. It’s there in Paulson’s machinations as Tripp, as she sniffed around for a story she could tell about life inside the Clinton White House. It’s there in the careful plotting by Margo Martindale’s Lucianne Goldberg and Cobie Smulders’s Ann Coulter, two right-wing operatives who played a crucial role in turning Clinton’s misdeeds into an impeachment proceeding.

    It is not a whitewashed retelling, a story in which women, now in the spotlight, are relentlessly noble. They are flawed – some vindictive, cutthroat and scheming – and at other times uncertain or oblivious. But they are fully realized characters who exist not only to advance a storyline, but to be the story. Because Clinton’s impeachment was always as much about this network of women as it was about the men who too often were treated as its only stars.