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.
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.
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.
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.