The Full Monica

Posted: Jul 14, 2001 12:00 AM
Now that Madonna is boringly, happily married and middle-aged, guess who is emerging as the new darling, the pet subject, of the academic elite?

Monica Lewinsky, that's who. A new academic volume by New York University Press, "Our Monica, Ourselves," features essays by a variety of "progressive" scholars and thinkers on such topics as "Monica Dreyfus," "The President's Penis" and "The Culture Wars of the 1960s and the Assault on the Presidency: The Meaning of the Clinton Impeachment," by Eli Zaretsky, which proffers the kind of breathless prose once reserved for Harlequin romances: "At the same time, both his need for public life and his sometimes confused explanations for his actions drew attention to his vulnerability. Clinton's enemies sensed his weakness, and it aroused them."

Now, HBO is running around the country taping interviews between Monica and top professors and students. Elaine Showalter, a chi-chi professor of English at Princeton, recently brought 23 of her own students to the mountaintop to earnestly engage Miss Lewinsky in a cultural studies debate.

Monica is now a full-fledged cultural icon, but an icon of what? We won't get Monica's full, mature reflection on the meaning of her life's story until January, when the HBO special is expected to air. But, Professor Showalter coyly notes in the Chronicle of Higher Education, Monica may not share the professor's story. "Was the Lewinsky I saw at Cooper Union aware of this range of cultural nuance and allusive complexity? Without violating the terms of the confidentiality agreement, I think I can say that her intellectual journey has not included exposure to cultural studies."

Good thing. In a new book, "Her Way," feminist scholar and journalist Paula Kamen (like many younger feminists) defends Monica as the new sexual beau ideal. Monica, according to Kamen, is the new type of woman "shaped by the sexual revolution," who shares "more of men's power, sense of entitlement and social clout." Monica was "brazen, relentless and self-centered in her quest for sex and power; in other words, she acted like a man."

Huh? Monica, you may recall, was a young woman who snapped her thong at a powerful, indiscriminate older man for reasons she did not fully understand, and who ended up falling in love, waiting by the phone, fantasizing about the wedding, obsessing about his neckties, and generally acting about as unmasculine in the conduct of her sexual affairs as possible. At the last moment, when she realized her utter dispensability and therefore utter sexual humiliation, she tried to blackmail the president into getting her a paltry, pathetic, $40,000-a-year PR position in the cosmetics industry. Monica's path led neither to much sex nor any power.

Except the power, of course, to feed an endless cycle of grad student theses and academic essays on the joys of self-defined sexuality.

Even younger feminists are recognizing a great big hole in the middle of the Monica model. "The most dramatic sexual evolutions documented in this book involved women's acting and thinking more like men, such as having more partners and premarital sex without shame," notes Kamen. But then she abruptly retreats, wondering whether acting like men "seems like the easy part": "I myself have noticed this male paradigm as dominant even among my 'liberated' friends. ... a few of them called me because they didn't understand why they weren't satisfied with their casual, uncommitted sexual relationships." "But guys do this. Why should I want more?" Female desire for sexual commitment has been redefined as sissy stuff. Or, as Kamen notes, women who want emotional connections "feel as though they must be weak."

You want some MetaMonica moralizing? Try this: Meaningless sex and sexual power are not the same thing. Certainly not for young women. Just ask Monica.