A TOGA, A DRESS, A CARDIGAN
When I read that the latest FX “American Crime Story” installment is about Bill Clinton’s impeachment and his relationship with Monica Lewinsky, I wonder where they’ll find the perfect blue dress. The stained dress. The one from Gap, long-sleeved and belted. Because — and only because — Monica Lewinsky herself is an executive producer, I assume they won’t replace the collar with a v-neck, deep enough for several inches of cleavage. But maybe it will be a little tighter, a little shorter, a little less intern-appropriate, as if to say, this is a girl aware of what her body can do. Will the dress sell out when viewers see it on-screen, read on Who What Wear that it’s from Nordstrom or Neiman Marcus or maybe even Zara? Will H&M make a $25 replica two months later? Will Capitol Hill and legal offices everywhere resemble a furious sea, young women and interns draped in blue charging up steps and down hallways, this dress they don once a symbol of bad behavior and now reclaimed as power? Or, will their male bosses still claim these bodies as theirs, will conservative pundits decry these women as wide-eyed vixens asking for it, will the public shame them like Monica Lewinsky and say, well, what did she expect looking like that?
In the grocery store, tabloids and glossies line checkout lanes. I walk through a tunnel of headlines shouting diet advice and skincare secrets and tips on dressing for your body shape. Society likes to condemn the media for perpetuating narrow expectations of what a woman should look and act like, but culture points its finger right back. Tabloids made Monica Lewinsky patient zero for the condemnation of women on a mass scale, but society has long scrutinized every inch of a woman’s body, punished women for breaking social norms, categorized the Madonnas and the whores. In second-century Athens, the supervisor of decorum
for girls, known as the gunaikonomos, conducted clothing checks to ensure girls were dressed properly. In ancient Rome, prostitutes had to register with the local magistrate and don togas instead of the traditional stola as badges of shame. In France after World War II, women accused of having romantic or sexual relationships with German soldiers — a crime cleverly coined as horizontal collaboration — had their heads shaved publicly as punishment and easy identification, crowds jeering as men paraded them through the streets, their own community turned against them. So, when we say the media dictates society’s views of women’s behaviors and appearance, don’t we really mean that the media is just a mirror reflecting an image we refuse to claim as ours?
I remember reading The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible in high school, simultaneously enraptured and horrified by these women who were desperate to claim power in a society where they had so little, regardless of the consequences. In high schools across America, English classes pair The Scarlet Letter with Monica Lewinsky’s 2015 TED Talk, “The Price of Shame.” Teachers liken the former White House intern to Hester Prynne, her 1990s tabloid harassment the modern equivalent of a scarlet “A.” I doubt most Americans remember Hawthorne’s 1850 novel, haven’t read it since eleventh grade or at all; but the scarlet “A” has transcended literary circles and entered the cultural zeitgeist, minimized to the symbol of female sluttiness, of women behaving badly, despite its transformation in the novel from representing Hester’s adultery to her ability, her strength as a woman. Critics can’t agree on Hawthorne’s inspiration for Hester. There are too many Puritan-era women from which to choose. There’s Hester Craford, flogged for fornication; there’s Mary Magdalene Bailey, convicted of adultery and forced to wear the letter “A” on her dress; there’s Elizabeth Pain, accused of murdering her illegitimate child. The first sentence of her biography on Wikipedia reads, “Pain was a spinster who had a child out of wedlock, considered evidence of illegal fornication,” as if that is all we need to know about her, as if that is all to which her life amounted. If a woman lives a life that doesn’t fit society’s narrative, that isn’t worthy of documentation by the men who write the history books, does she really exist?
In the hallways of the school at which I teach, I wonder when these girls, these intelligent and opinionated teenagers with bright futures ahead of them, will receive their scarlet letter, what they will do to make society turn on them. Ask a woman what her scarlet letter is and she’ll tell you without pause. We all have one. It’s the stained blue dress that Linda Tripp convinced Monica Lewinsky to save as an insurance policy but that ultimately condemned her as a homewrecker, a man’s momentary lapse in judgment. It’s the spaghetti strap tank top of a teen girl sent home for distracting her male peers. It’s the black tunic I wore as a dress to a college party, the elastic jersey compliant in the two boys’ hands as they slipped it off my unconscious body. We’re told to extend our dresses, button our shirts, shorten our heels, heighten our necklines, soften our makeup, deflate our push-up bras. This will keep us safe, this will keep us out of trouble, this will keep us from sending the wrong signs. Never mind that Chanel Miller wore a beige cardigan the night Brock Turner assaulted her. Sometimes, I imagine a museum exhibit on the rules for being a woman told through clothing. This is what bad women wear, what sluts wear, what rule-breakers and noisemakers wear. This is what good women wear, what innocent women wear, what cupcake bakers and homemakers wear. Lined along white gallery walls, an archive of women reduced to fabric: a toga, a dress, a cardigan.
Melissa Darcey is a writer and high school English teacher in San Diego, California. Her work has appeared in The Florida Review, The Louisville Review, McSweeney's Internet Tendency, The Rumpus, and elsewhere.