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Impeachment: American Crime Story's fixation on women's bodies is gratuitous and cruel

  • "In the opening scene of American Crime Story: Impeachment, Monica Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) is on her way to meet her confidante and friend Linda Tripp (Sarah Paulson) for what she believes is a nice chat between friends. As Lewinsky descends the escalator, she is trailed by a stone-faced man in a black suit, and when her friend greets her in the food court of the mall, it becomes clear that she was led there under subterfuge," says Megan Reynolds. "Tripp has betrayed their confidence, and Lewinsky’s secret is now a part of the larger plan to bring down Bill Clinton. It’s clear from the opening of this show that the story we are all largely familiar with will be told from the women’s perspectives, but what also emerges is another ghost from the very recent past: the fixation on Lewinsky and Tripp’s bodies as fodder for criticism and cruelty. By now, everyone is intimately familiar with the hallmarks of a Ryan Murphy production, and American Crime Story: Impeachment neatly ticks all of those tired boxes. The cast is stacked like a curio cabinet of his favorite toys, featuring Sarah Paulson (in an ill-advised fat suit) as the show’s immediate locus. Tripp’s low self-esteem and the media’s portrayal of her as an old, bitter woman acting out of a selfish desperation seems to be the focus here, but Murphy refuses to drop this approach for a more nuanced take. Before Lewinsky makes it to the food court at the mall, she gets a Starbucks and attends a step class, gamely engaging in light cardio before heading home to wistfully pack a box full of her Clinton memorabilia—a stuffed dog, a copy of Leaves of Grass—in preparation for her big move to New York, where she will leave the affair with the president behind. We all know what happens after this, but instead of getting straight to the action, Murphy allows space for his muse, Paulson, to fully inhabit the role of Linda Tripp, which for the director means spending a gratuitous amount of time focusing on her weight. But Paulson’s Tripp is hampered by her fat suit as well as pounds of prosthetics as she attempts to convincingly portray a power-hungry woman bound by loyalty to a job that cares little for her. In Impeachment, Tripp’s body image issues are framed as the driving force behind her poor decisions, as if the sadness she feels about her body naturally manifests in treachery and a complete disregard for other people."


    • Sarah Paulson never seems comfortable in her character Linda Tripp's body—perhaps because it’s not her body. (Or her nose): "Somewhere between the fat suit, the SlimFast we see Tripp making at the very outset of the show, and many frozen dinners eaten alone in front of the TV, it begins to feel as though Impeachment enjoys making fun of Tripp’s appearance just as much as it does criticizing others who did so when she was still alive," says Laura Bradley. "On the one hand, Impeachment makes sure to show us how upset Tripp is when she sees John Goodman playing her on SNL—but then again, she does so while once again shoveling frozen potatoes into her mouth in a darkened room. No one is clamoring for a season of ACS that vindicates Tripp in the mold of, say, Marcia Clark, whose sympathetic portrayal in the first season of ACS prompted a long overdue re-evaluation. Still, the hollowness at Impeachment’s center stems, in part, from its reluctance to let viewers see the commonalities we’d be ashamed to admit we share with Tripp—at least, so far."
    • Watching Impeachment forces us to sit in a stew of our shame and regret: "I don’t know how many people remember this, but we once celebrated Bill Clinton as the 'Comeback Kid' for surviving a sex scandal and coming in second place in the 1992 New Hampshire primary, which he only managed to do by smearing and discrediting his accuser, Gennifer Flowers," says Dustin Rowles. "Six years later he admitted under oath to having an affair with her. Nevertheless, for surviving that, the media celebrated him! Then he used the momentum he gained from smearing and discrediting an accuser and rode that to the White House, where he behaved with Monica Lewinsky in precisely the same manner he did with Flowers. It’s really something else, isn’t it? If anything, American Crime Story: Impeachment will be valuable for the way it makes those of us who lived through it reflect on the way it was covered, on why we placed our allegiances where we did, and on why it’s important to interrogate someone’s qualities beyond the D or the R next to their name."
    • Ryan Murphy has long had a weakness for women like Linda Tripp: "The misdirected focus on the relationship between Tripp and Lewinsky isn’t necessarily surprising. Murphy has long had a weakness for women like Tripp," says Sophie Gilbert, adding: "But the Clinton debacle was and always has been bigger than the betrayal of Monica. Impeachment only briefly touches upon this fact amid its fixation on Tripp as a huffy malcontent so irked by the Clinton administration’s informal occupation of the White House (she’s shown sneering at pizza parties and casual Fridays) that she almost brings down the 42nd president and ruthlessly sacrifices a young woman in the process. This isn’t to say that Lewinsky shouldn’t get to challenge how she was treated—she certainly should. But with its curious focus on Tripp and Lewinsky, Impeachment follows the tabloid model rather than subverting it. The show spends an exhaustive amount of time on the salacious elements of the Clinton affair—the dress, the gifts, the phone calls, the tapes—while neglecting the politics at play, and the roiling currents below the surface of the story."
    • American Crime Story has a successful formula for being part guilty pleasure and part meticulously fair retrospective critiques: "Here’s how much I enjoyed the first seven out of 10 episodes of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story: As soon as I ran out of screeners, I spent Labor Day weekend marathoning all 10 episodes of The People v. O.J. Simpson, the original, critically acclaimed American Crime Story miniseries that aired in 2016 and that I’d never gotten around to watching," says David Klion. "Both shows dramatize real events from the 1990s that made for great TV at the time, and both make for great TV in their own right. American Crime Story has developed a formula that recreates the guilty pleasures of following these exhaustively covered scandals while also subjecting them to meticulously fair retrospective critiques. In both shows, expert pacing makes all the legalistic complexities of the scandals in question comprehensible, while flawless casting keeps us invested. It’s the actors who manage to locate something sympathetic and human in each of these familiar and mutually antagonistic characters. What ACS grasps, and what prevents the shows from becoming tediously didactic, is that these stories were riveting for a reason. The success of both shows can be measured by how believably they replicate the sensation of being engrossed by these events as they unfolded in real time."
    • Why American Crime Story is so much better than American Horror Story: "The premiere of Impeachment: American Crime Story juxtaposed with latest edition of American Horror Story provides a stark demonstration of why the first of Ryan Murphy's anthology series formats is so much better than the second -- namely, because planting a foot in real-life events, however salacious, helps curb the producer's more distasteful excesses," says Brian Lowry. "The requirements of presenting material based on a true story imposes a degree of discipline that Horror Story has lacked from the get-go. And while the show doesn't hide its gruesome marching orders -- 'horror' is in the title, after all -- the fact we're up to a 10th season might explain why Murphy and his collaborators keep trying to outdo themselves, in occasionally hard-to-stomach ways. While a lot of people obviously enjoy the show, American Horror Story's latest installment, subtitled Double Feature, is an especially grisly iteration of the formula. If anything, the vampire-tinged plot -- with writers essentially selling their souls and becoming bloodsuckers (not a subtle metaphor) in their hunger for success -- reflects the franchise's worst instincts, both in its derivative touches and gratuitous gore, particularly with a subplot that involves the daughter of the central couple."
    • When Cobie Smulders was tapped to replace Betty Gilpin as Ann Coulter, she listened to all 12 of the conservative pundit's books: "My husband (Taran Killam) got hired pre-pandemic, and then was put on hold—like the rest of the world," says Smulders. "I very much went on tape and had to throw together my best Ann Coulter on a whim to get it, but the role came to me at a time politically—it was after this past presidential election—where I was like, I don’t know, man! It just seems like a lot. And then I decided, you know what? What an amazing challenge and opportunity. I was excited about doing something that’s completely different from my life. I’ve never met Ann Coulter and don’t know her personally, so I can only speak to what I’ve seen, what I’ve heard her say, and what I think her true beliefs are. But she also seems like the type of woman who has a ton of confidence, who’s very intelligent, and who can walk into a room and think they’re the smartest, most beautiful person in the room—which is the polar opposite of me in my life. To show up on set and pretend to be that confident and stubbornly righteous was an interesting exercise for me." As for her preparation, Smulders says: "I mean, she’s written… I think 12 books? And I listened to every one of them. So it would be me, like, folding laundry and listening. It was the first time in my life where I was listening to audiobooks just to get the cadence of the voice and not digest what was being said. You know, I certainly heard what she had to say, but I don’t share the same beliefs, so it was like tuning off that part of your brain that’s going to argue or disagree and just try to listen to the sounds and the rhythms. There was a lot of that. There are a lot of videos online, and she has her blog, so it was about diving into that. On the show, it’s somebody who’s super eager at the beginning of her career laced in with the most familiar version of Ann Coulter that we see on television today."
    • How Clive Owen prepared to play Bill Clinton

    TOPICS: Impeachment: American Crime Story, FX, Ann Coulter, Clive Owen, Cobie Smulders, Linda Tripp, Ryan Murphy, Sarah Paulson, Body Portrayals and TV