Femme fatale

President Clinton's just a girl who can't say no.

By Virginia Vitzthum
October 8, 1998 11:00PM (UTC)
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Toni Morrison only told part of the story when she insisted in last week's New Yorker that President Clinton is our first black president. (Actually, comic Chris Rock said it first.) Clinton may also be the first woman to occupy the Oval Office.

The first known victim of child abuse in the White House, Clinton seemed female from the start -- overeating, overcompensating, over-accommodating and more vulnerable than the emotionally inscrutable Hillary. The high ratings women give Clinton go beyond politics: Bob Packwood had a good record on abortion and other women's issues, and we reviled him. But women have mostly stuck by Clinton; now men are doing the reviling.


Clinton's androgyny may be part of what Kenneth Starr has against him. Starr correctly assumed that men in Congress would share his own revulsion at Clinton's kinky hybrid of male power-tripping and womanly waffling. The president's male critics, who seem to feel entitled to know everything about him, have subjected him to a global version of the male gaze, the judging surveillance, subtle and unsubtle, that women undergo. Hillary surrendered to the demands of the gaze at first, changing her name and her hair and apologizing to Tammy Wynette fans. Then the gaze got bored with her and turned to him. The people needed to know what kind of underwear he wore, and there was fretting throughout the land about his chubby thighs.

This unprecedented shift in focus to the first lady's husband reflects Clinton's feminine traits but also the historical moment. Some time in the last few years, fashion porn got integrated and men became sex objects. The young, wet, half-dressed beauties wallpapering billboards and buses are now male as well as female, and the rules are changing for normal unphotogenic grown-ups, too. The way men are judged is merging with the criteria for women, leaving Clinton improvising frantically.

His televised apology on Aug. 17 and its aftermath crystallized his role as diva in some theater of the absurd. The speech was reviewed instantly by men on TV: "He's not acting sorry enough." The macho defiance at the end was deemed unacceptable. Clinton bristled at this for a while, but as always, buckled down to work and honed his apology chops in a series of sincere performances, which everyone else then pretended to believe or doubt.


Clinton can still occasionally work the male gaze -- people admired him for looking smooth and unruffled while he prevaricated on camera in his grand jury testimony, for instance. But the gaze is notoriously quick to turn on you, and men (props to Toni: white men) are now lunging at Clinton like hounds around a treed possum. The years of defending philandering politicians with a cast-off "boys will be boys" have been forgotten; the president must be savaged for his sexuality. Certainly, Monica Lewinsky and her thong have come in for some criticism. But far more scrutiny -- and derision -- has been focused on Clinton's sexual behavior. That's not because sexual politics have evolved beyond the old roles, but because Clinton is the femme fatale this time.

Clinton's critics defend Starr's crusade against him with perhaps the oldest misogynistic excuse of all: He was asking for it -- recklessly cavorting in the White House and then lying about it when it was clear he was about to be found out. Certainly he played the girl in his affair with Monica, in which she pursued and he was caught. There was a teenage-girlishness to his love-play -- the hours on the phone, memorizing her phone number, wearing her ties on special days. He played hard to get; he wouldn't go all the way. And every time he needed to turn ruthless, he nurtured instead, comforting and flattering Monica instead of sending her packing.

How much of the contempt heaped on Clinton is just bad cultural timing and how much is due to his prowling anima? Many of his failings as a leader stem from his widely acknowledged and classically feminine need to be liked. He can't bear to be shunned by the clique in power, so he drops all his unpopular friends: Lani Guinier, Joycelyn Elders, gay soldiers, welfare recipients and labor unions. (It's a woman's prerogative to change her mind.) He's also more dove than hawk, though his youthful opposition to the Vietnam War seems like his last sort of genuine expression of it. His military actions as president have felt half-hearted and compensatory. Whereas Ronald Reagan and George Bush reveled in the neat toys and war games deployed in Grenada and the Persian Gulf, Clinton bombed Sudan and Afghanistan not as part of a war, but impetuously, spanking an international bully.


In his affair, Clinton played the old girl game of Technical Virginity -- staying good by doing "everything but." Who knows what exactly drove his refusal to come, but it's generally women who associate orgasm with trust. A normal guy may or may not worry about his partner's pleasure, but he damn sure gets off. Was his sexual brinksmanship male power tripping, or female withholding? All we can say for sure is that Clinton is too approval-starved to be a complete [son of a] bitch, but he resents those for whom he performs. Stumbling through his repertoire of half-measures, he pleases everyone he cheats and cheats everyone he pleases.

Virginia Vitzthum

Virginia Vitzthum is a writer living in New York.

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Bill Clinton Hillary Rodham Clinton