No gender gap on this scandal

September 23, 1998|By Ellen Goodman

WASHINGTON -- Oh my gawd. Stop them before they hug again. Here comes Bill. There is Monica. See the back of Bill's head. See Monica's beaming smile. See them embrace. Freeze frame. Start again.

Do they have this video clip on a continual loop? At this point in the news cycle -- or news recycle -- Bill and Monica have been together more often on television than in real life.

Oh no! Here it comes again. This time, she's got the beret! Why do I have the feeling that we are witnessing a new form of media water torture. Are they going to show this Bill and Monica moment until the entire country throws up its hands and cries "Uncle," or more to the point, "Impeachment"?

Anyone spending a week in this Monica-obsessed capital gets the impression that the media and Congress are most outraged that the public hasn't lived up to their outrage expectations. Any day now, any minute, we are told, the American people will rise up and send the president packing. After the Starr report for sure. OK, after the videotaped testimony for absolutely sure. OK, give 'em another shot of Bill and Monica.

When the polls stay still -- don't like what he did; don't want him impeached -- the "newsmakers" behave as if the citizens were a touch dimwitted.

What upsets many is that women haven't yet deserted the president. When asked for the 10th time in five days why women aren't demanding the head of this cheating husband, I got the feeling they believe we are derelict in our duty as moral arbiters.

A different view

Seven years ago, the Clarence Thomas hearings had men and women tiptoeing around each other at the water cooler. The slogan of angry women was: "You just don't get it." Now, those who expected a female outburst are saying, "I don't get it."

This sex scandal comes without a gender gap. From the moment the first jokes hit the office, men and women were groaning under the weight of the double-entendres. Together. Whatever wraps there were on talking about sex in "mixed company," or talking dirty in the workplace, came off around mid-January.

Now in polls like the New York Times', men and women are in dead-even agreement. In equal numbers, they think Mr. Clinton's doing a good job. In nearly equal numbers they think he doesn't share the country's values.

One accusation is that women have sold out. Give us one Madeleine Albright and we'll let Mr. Clinton have one Monica Lewinsky. Give us one Family and Medical Leave Act and we'll let you have 10 sexual encounters. There is some truth to that trade-off of the personal for the political. It's the policies, stupid.

No abuse here

But more important to the ungapping of America is the story itself -- about which we know much more than we wish. This isn't a he said/she said controversy. It's a he did/she did affair. It doesn't fit into any prefab structure of abuse.

At the outset, it was possible to see this as a classic about a powerful older man and a vulnerable young woman. He was the grown-up, the president of the United States. But the disharmonic convergence of Monica and Bill -- Oh no, here they go again! -- defies pat notions of gender and inequality.

The come-ons, the "clutch," the public crotch grab. Performing oral sex on a man who might not know your name. It all makes Monica an unlikely object of sympathy.

If the pollsters asked a multiple choice question about her -- Is Monica (a) needy, (b) brazen, (c) young and insecure, (d) worldly and aggressive -- we'd all choose (e) all of the above.

The president, for his part, doesn't come across as a predator, pursuing young innocent girls. He seems more like a reckless, thoughtless adolescent undone by the sight of a thong.

Who was the aggressor? Who ruined whose life? It's a dead heat. Who's hurt? Everybody. But there's no victim of this consensual sex -- except perhaps a wife who refuses the role.

Cases of sex and harassment have often placed men and women on two sides of a great divide, as we try to figure out and even out the power disequilibrium. We often see the "true stories" through a different set of lenses.

But in the tale of two "Kiddos," men and women aren't standing across the divide yelling "You Just Don't Understand." With all the details laid out, the endless loop plays pretty much the same for men and women.

The itty-bitty, teeny-weeny bit of good news is that for once men and women are speaking the same language.

Ellen Goodman is a syndicated columnist.

Pub Date: 9/23/98

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