The gendering of publicity
The increasing exposure of private lives to public scrutiny on British television is often regarded as an effect of North American commercialism on an indigenous tradition of public service broadcasting. As Thompson (2000) explains, more generally this crossAtlantic influence is seen as the consequence of the tradition of greater ‘openness to scrutiny’ in the USA, which coexists with a puritanical moral traditionalism that is intolerant of marital infidelity. The European tradition, as exemplified by France’s privacy laws, is to maintain greater secrecy along with a greater acceptance of men’s sexual transgression as a ‘normal’ expectation in marriage. Debate in the UK often finds itself stretched across these alternatives in contradictory ways. The protection of class elites in the political establishment from too much intrusion has a long history, despite a commitment to the need for accountability. Indeed, the public service tradition was founded on a contract of ‘trust’ that those in charge of running the institutions of the state, including the BBC, would act in the interests of the wider populace. It is a system hedged about with numerous techniques for maintaining secrecy. On the other hand, the freedom of the popular commercial press to expose sexual transgressions (and marital infidelity in particular) has been facilitated by one of the least restrictive legal and regulatory frameworks in the world (Thompson 2000: 130).
Another contradiction exists between continuing debates in liberal discourses on how to manage the relation between the public and private spheres and the incisive critique arising from an emergent feminist engagement with these issues (Fraser 1995; McLaughlin 1998). This gendering of the analysis has drawn attention to the emancipatory potential of exposing private behaviour to public scrutiny through confessional discourse and radical uses of scandalous publicity. Indeed, the increasing prominence of media scandals may be partly a consequence of this challenging of the established moral codes of patriarchal societies. The Clinton/Lewinsky scandal, for example, arose from accusations of sexual harassment, a sexual crime that arose from feminist campaigning for the reclassification of sexual behaviour in these terms. Scandals do not simply work to reconfirm moral norms, but can also work to expose and challenge the power relations of class, ‘race’ and gender that structure modern societies (Morrison 1992; Fraser 1995; in relation to Clinton/Lewinsky scandal see Berlant and Duggan 2001).
The dangers of loss of privacy have to be balanced, Nancy Fraser (1995) argues, against its potential political usefulness. Publicity can be a political weapon, an instrument of emancipation and empowerment. The Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill case in 1991 allowed many women in the USA to speak out about sexual harassment for the first time, instead of suffering it as a private humiliation. Jenny Kitzinger’s research in the UK also provides an example of the transforming power of media publicity:
The media discovery of sexual abuse fundamentally transformed private and public discourse about this issue: opening it up for both personal reflection and community discussion. [In the past] the isolation, stigma and taboo around abuse were such that it was a difficult subject to raise.
(Kitzinger 2001: 99)
The media’s attention transformed it from a shameful, individual secret to a public, social issue. Drawing on the work of Hannah Arendt, Maria Pia Lara (1998: 7) argues that power inheres in the ability to draw boundaries between the public and the private, and to redraw them, thereby creating a new meaning of the ‘public’. In this respect, disclosure is an instrument to draw attention to the narrowness of previous conceptions of justice. To rectify past exclusions, she argues, there has to be a struggle to reconceive normative conceptions of the ‘we’ through symbolic intervention in the public sphere. Narratives of emancipation are a demand for recognition. They are also capable of envisioning utopian futures, what ‘ought to be’ rather than what ‘is’ (ibid.: 1-3).
Women have less power than men do to draw boundaries between the public and the private. This is highlighted in Nancy Fraser’s analysis of the high-profile Clarence Thomas/Anita Hill case (a black male judge nominated for the Supreme Court was accused by a black woman law professor of sexual harassment when she had worked for him years earlier at the Equal Employment Opportunities Commission). Women,
and this is even more so for black women, Fraser argues, are vulnerable to intrusive publicity. African-Americans’ history as slaves denied them domestic privacy and the ability to protect themselves from invasions of their space, including, for women, unwanted sexual attention. Although ‘privacy’ and ‘publicity’ are gendered categories,
It is not the case now, and never was, that women are simply excluded from public life; nor that men are public and women are private; nor that the private sphere is women’s sphere and the public sphere is men’s; nor that the feminist project is to collapse the boundaries between public and private. Rather feminist analysis shows the political ideological nature of these categories. And the feminist project aims to overcome the gender hierarchy that gives men more power than women to draw the line between public and private.
(Fraser 1995: 305)
To have any effect, disclosure in the public sphere requires ‘illocutionary force’ (Lara 1998: 3). It isn’t simply a case of rational argument, as emphasized by Habermas, but depends on the rhetorical and emotional power of storytelling. Emancipatory narratives, in Lara’s analysis, connect two forms of validity, the moral and the aesthetic. Of particular significance for women has been the emergence of autobiography and biography as a powerful means by which women’s private experience is transformed into public knowledge. The widespread influence of the emotional and visceral power of certain forms of storytelling and visual rhetoric challenges the previous norms of ostensibly rational debate in the public sphere, and is held in deep suspicion by dominant, masculine elites, both academic and political. Kitzinger (2001: 100) also warns against a narrow conception of the political that ‘emphasises what people “know” without looking at the constitution of imagination and feeling’.
This gendered critique of the forms of public discourse contributes not only to an understanding of the reaction to Diana’s interview, but also more generally to the suspicion of ‘subjective’ narrative in the factual genres of television, as is discussed in Chapters 5 and 6.
The effects of publicity cannot be assumed in advance. Rather than thinking of disclosure and publicity as inevitably a force for progressive transformation, Fraser (1995: 306-7) suggests that we should conceive of the public sphere as an arena for staging conflicts. Once in the public domain there will be a discursive struggle over interpretation. In the case of the Hill/Thomas hearings, Fraser argues, this involved the meaning and moral status of sexual harassment in a context where the law naming it as an offence had failed to win popular support. Indeed, it became part of the backlash against ‘political correctness’ as an affront to men’s right to free speech. Hill also lacked support because some black women saw her as aligned with middle-class white feminism because of her relatively privileged job. Gender solidarity cannot be assumed across boundaries of ‘race’ and class, or, for that matter, political loyalties. A very different range of political alignments were in play in response to President Clinton’s impeachment proceedings in 1998, when his affair with Monica Lewinsky was taken up by right-wing moralists as an affront to family values. For some feminists this was an unforgivable case of sexual exploitation of a younger woman by an older, more powerful man; not for the first time, feminist opinion was uneasily aligned with right-wing moralism. But opinion among feminists was divided, with many well-known feminist commentators, including Betty Friedan, rallying to his support.
Scandals can be seen as a means of articulating the hegemonic struggle to establish or maintain the legitimacy of certain kinds of sexual ideologies at the expense of others. Debbie Epstein and Richard Johnson (1998) identify a dominant version of the sexual in scandal discourses as constructed around a belief in an uncontrollable sex drive in men, a drive generally agreed to be heightened by power. This is often explained in hormonal terms as the consequence of high levels of testosterone, from which men derive their impetus for both sex and power and the daring to take the associated risks. This explanation acts as a counterweight to the moral frameworks within which scandals are structured, allowing for commentary that excuses men’s transgressive behaviour by naturalizing it as an effect of biology, and therefore beyond men’s conscious control. It coexists with an assumption that it is women’s role as their wives to control these drives within the context of a ‘healthy’ – that is, sexually fulfilled – marriage. How the wife reacts to betrayal is one of the sources of narrative suspense and therefore a focus for public discussion. The loyal wife is one of the staples of the scandal narrative, ready to stand by her man through the ordeal of his exposure. Beyond this, the ‘other woman’ is variously presented as whore or victim, often depending on her relationship to the media. ‘Kissing and telling and getting paid for it is taken as the decisive comment on their morals’ (Epstein and Johnson 1998: 82).
Joshua Gamson (2001) has explored the dynamic of this link between sexual promiscuity and media publicity. In particular, he shows how the ‘age old’ division of women into virgin and whore has been integrated with contemporary discourses of feminism and celebrity. He is struck by how limited women’s roles in sex scandals remain.
Confronting the dichotomy with a liberal-feminist-derived woman-as-public – agent frame does not necessarily make much of a dent in the virgin-whore narrative. As long as women’s publicity itself is narrated by analogy to sex – the virtuous woman protects her chastity from predatory media, the woman who seeks out media attention is a harlot – the independent woman, even when she is of the out-of-my-way-mister, I’m-my-own-commodity variety, is easily absorbed back into the role of the prostitute.
(Gamson 2001: 170)
This is apparent in the way Monica Lewinsky was portrayed by the media. Mandy Merck (2000) draws attention to the way her mouth came to figure in the scandal. For women, long silenced by the masculinization of speech in the public sphere, she argues, the mouth is a site of erotic meaning – a symbol of desire rather than its capacity for speech and language. As the scandal worked through the victim or whore scenarios intrinsic to the genre, Monica’s big lips became the signifier of her sexual availability.
The specifically oral nature of the pleasures promised per se, the blowjob, was endlessly caricatured in representations as the pneumatic fellatrix of the sex shop. But unlike her conveniently deflatable counterpart, ‘Monica the Mouth Organ’ proved, in the words of one columnist, a walking, talking. . . blow-up doll.
(Merck 2000: 191-2)
In the aftermath, Monica turned to the confessional television interview (in the UK on Channel 4 1999), as well as to writing a book, to escape this reductive image of her role in the affair by telling her side of the story.