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Stay Tuned--The Enemy Has Become an Ally

March 25, 2001|Elaine Showalter | Elaine Showalter is a professor of English at Princeton University and the author of "Inventing Herself: Claiming a Feminist Intellectual Heritage."

PRINCETON — As we come to the end of Women's History Month, Jane Fonda and Harvard professor Carol Gilligan qualify as poster women. Fonda because she gave $12.5 million to Harvard's Graduate School of Education for a center on gender and education, and Gilligan because, despite the professorship Fonda endowed in her honor, she is moving, at age 64, to new opportunities at New York University. But I'd like to nominate Monica S. Lewinsky and Sarah Ferguson as feminist icons of the year. Yes, "that woman" and the "Duchess of Pork," two longstanding targets of ridicule and scorn, whose humiliations have launched a thousand quips and sparked a thousand and one "Tonight Show" jokes about fat and sex.

That's the point. Both have had scandalous, failed relationships with men in positions of power. Both have been spokeswomen for diet centers, Ferguson for Weight Watchers and Lewinsky for Jenny Craig. Not the likeliest messengers of self-reliance and self-esteem. But it's empowering and inspiring to see this much-mocked duo speak up, strike back and convert their mistakes into lessons, instead of hiding away in shame or going into a nunnery. Moreover, they are doing it with courage, humor and panache, and they are using a medium almost as unexpected as their message.

First, there is Ferguson's clever TV ad for Charles Schwab Smart Investor, which debuted during Superbowl XXXV. We hear a woman's voiceover telling a rapturous little girl a fairy tale. Someday, the voice promises, she will grow up to be a beautiful young lady, and she will meet a knight in shining armor on a white stallion, who will sweep her away to his great castle where she will be given everything her heart desires "forever and ever." Then the camera cuts to a woman sitting at her laptop, and we see that the storyteller is the Duchess of York. "Of course, if it doesn't work out," she warns sternly, "you'll need to understand the difference between a PE ratio and a dividend yield, a growth versus a value strategy." The little girl's face falls, but Fergie is relentless: "Tomorrow night, we'll do small caps and midcaps."

Female football fans reportedly loved the ad's sly allusions to the duchess' divorce from Prince Andrew, her subsequent financial recovery as a representative for Weight Watchers and her efforts to raise her two daughters, Princesses Beatrice and Eugenie, to avoid her mistakes.

Lewinsky has signed to do an HBO documentary in which she will discuss her post-Clinton personal journey and political education with graduate and undergraduate students of constitutional law, women's history, American history and psychology. "The last couple of years have been such a time of intense growth and perspective for me," she told the New York Times. "I want to do something that reflects the way I feel now." Sheila Nevins, head of HBO's documentary unit, is enthusiastic about the scope and significance of the project. "It's not just Monica: It's Monica in history; it's Monica in privacy; it's Monica in trauma."

I know what you're thinking: It's Monica in debt. It's Monica in denial. I have to admit that my initial response to this announcement was skeptical, too. Lewinsky has so long been an object of national ridicule that anything she does looks like another example of spotlight-grabbing. I wondered at first if the handbag business was slowing down, and whether the Lewinsky History Seminar (do we get credit?) was another version of Donna Rice's No Excuses jeans ad, or Darva Conger sharing her pain in Playboy.

But I've changed my mind. In American literature from Nathaniel Hawthorne on, the moral of the story is always: The woman pays. Seduced or seducer, abandoned or divorced, rejected or defiant, the woman has been the one who bears the brunt of social punishment and ostracism, while the man moves on.

In many ways the picture hasn't changed. In suburbia, even now, the cast-off mistress has to leave town when the guy gets over his midlife crisis and goes back to his wife. In academia, the ex-wife stays behind while the famous professor wangles snazzy jobs for himself and his new graduate-student bride at another campus. In Hollywood, the aging star queen ends up in the Betty Ford Clinic while her ex-spouse cavorts with a teenager. As Fergie has commented on her stalking by the tabloids, "It used to be when a woman left the Palace, they went without their heads."

Rather than retreating in disgrace with a scarlet letter pinned to her Gap dress, or flaunting her sexuality for money, Lewinsky is determined to speak out, especially now that there are no legal restrictions silencing her.

Back in 1970, when we were marching down Fifth Avenue for women's liberation, we viewed commercials and TV as high on the list of feminist no-nos, right up there with guns, pornography and football. Who would have predicted that the enemy would become an ally? Then we were talking about changing politics and changing the workplace. But it may yet turn out that the popular media are just as important in changing people's minds. Take your daughters to work next month, by all means, but leave the TV on.

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