Saturday, October 03, 2009

"Especially for the Women": The Scarlet Letterman

Near the end of his televised confession Thursday night, David Letterman admitted that the details of his affairs with staffers might be embarrassing, "especially for the women."

That line was a lot of things: a self-deprecating joke, an appeal for privacy, an attempt to position himself as the defender of his former employees and girlfriends. Perhaps it was a disingenuous piece of rhetoric; perhaps it was a sincere moment of protectiveness; it could very easily be both. But whatever else it was, it was the truth.

The most vulnerable people in this scandal are the people who are not rich or famous. That means, as it so often means in sexual scandals, the women.

That truth is being roundly ignored in our media. The hunt is on to name and number every co-worker Dave's slept with, the consequences for those women be damned.

Blogs, alas, led the way to the bottom. One of Letterman's assistants had been widely identified as a figure in the case before noon on Friday. Blogs were providing pictures and video of her. (Gawker, TMZ, Radar: I am looking, but not linking, your way.) By Saturday morning, even the Gray Lady was giving up a name, although this person has not been accused of any crime, appears to have no involvement in the blackmail plot, and (as the subordinate in a workplace affair) can't possibly have harassed her multimillionaire celebrity boss. The New York Times actually reveals her name in an article that explicitly admits she's not a suspect.

I understand no one's very interested in what happens to these people after they're publicly dragged through the mud. That's exactly what's wrong with it. Even if the press isn't interested in people themselves, because they don't happen to be bright shiny celebrities, the media should concern itself with the consequences of its own actions. And it's precisely the private figures, the women, who get hurt.

Consider the one person to be punished most heavily for Bill Clinton's sexual escapades: Monica Lewinsky.

Now, many people might think that Clinton was punished most. Wasn't he publicly humiliated? Wasn't he impeached by the House? Didn't he see his presidency at risk. It's easy to focus on Clinton, because he's more interesting and dramatic and because he had so much more to lose. And that's the point.

Lewinsky didn't have nearly as much to lose. So she lost all of it.

Clinton had vastly more to lose, which made him vastly easier for him to sustain losses, to defend against them, and to recoup them. He lost some dignity and some respect and some influence, but was left more than enough to rebuild his position. I think you'll notice that he's doing just fine today. Mrs. Clinton, dragged through the humiliating scandal, has also done rather well for herself. It's just Lewinsky, who was not famous or talented or powerful or special, who has to wear the virtual scarlet letter until she dies. After that, she'll be trashed one last time, in the obit for the Times.

Do you think Lewinsky will ever have a normal job interview again in her life? Do you think she'll ever go on normal first date? What do you think happens to her when she checks into a hotel, when she hands a cashier or a waiter her credit card, when she's recognized in the street? Civilians don't get to live things down the way stars do. She doesn't get a second act, where the talents that originally made her famous "redeem" her from ignominy; the ignominy is what made her famous.

And Lewinsky, unlike a politician or media star, doesn't have the kind of money it takes to insulate her from public shame. Bill Clinton doesn't check into a hotel at the front desk, and he doesn't get served by a waiter who wasn't specifically prepared to serve him, and he doesn't go to the supermarket. Wealthy people involved in a scandal have their personal shoppers, and their housekeepers, and their security staff between themselves and the thousand petty humiliations Lewinsky gets. Nor can Lewinsky make even part of the money it would take for that, except by participating in the same media freakshow that ruined her. Any hope Lewinsky had of a normal career was pretty much scorched by her mid-20s. (Imagine telling your legal department that you had hired America's most famous workplace fraternizer.) That's why the poor underqualified kid had to go on freaking book tour, because the only money she could make came from her humiliating place in the public eye. But Lewinsky doesn't have the rarefied talents that would allow her to navigate a successful public career. Really, almost none of us do.

Neither, alas, do the women Letterman has slept with at work. We're not talking about Merrill Markoe here, who was once his head writer and who helped him invent the Letterman show we're familiar with today. We're talking about women, now in or around their thirties, who originally had unglamorous production-side jobs with Letterman and who have now moved into decent professional gigs in TV or in other careers. There's no value to hurting these people's modest careers or their private lives, unless ruining and humiliating a bystander is imagined as a good in itself. They won't be harmed as widely or as profoundly as Lewinsky was. The scandal won't be as big, and they've had more time to build resumes and reputations in fields outside "public laughingstock." But they will be certainly harmed, and their ability to protect themselves in limited.

And what have these people done? They've made an error of judgment while young and in possession of a vagina. That's why they'll get no protection, and why some people will justify trashing them in public: because women's sexual decisions are stigmatized in a way men's never are.

That's why the general public is okay with trashing Lewinsky: she's a scarlet woman, who committed adultery with another woman's husband. She was also an immature twenty-something who lacked the sense or worldly experience to turn a charismatic older man who was leader of the free world. In any just or merciful world, she would be allowed to live that mistake down. It's not a moment of shining virtue, but Clinton shouldn't need to rely on Lewinsky's judgment to head off bad behavior.

Some of Letterman's employees slept with him: maybe because he had more power, maybe because they were starstruck, maybe because he seemed so much more accomplished and interesting than suitors closer to their age could be. Stupid? Maybe. Immature? Yes; in every case, we're probably talking about people under thirty, very early in their careers. And it wasn't for them to bring the maturity to the table when they dealt with Letterman. God knows, they made a human enough mistake, and it shouldn't be open to google and the wide world for the rest of their lives.

If we're going to be Victorians, we should be consistent at least. If we still, after all this time, punish women's sexual misdemeanors harder than we punish men's, we should at least have the corresponding Victorian reticence about exposing vulnerable young women to scandal. It's still especially embarrassing for the women, even if it shouldn't be. So it would be nice to keep their names out of it.

crossposted at


Renaissance Girl said...

I heard a wonderful monologue this past summer in your fair city, by a playwright named Rob Handel, in the person of Lewinsky. From, I believe, a new play of his. It was remarkably moving, and imagined persuasively what it's like to walk into a room when everyone there knows JUST ONE THING about you.

medieval woman said...

Very well said, Doc C! And hee, hee to the "Scarlet Letterman"!