by Gloria Steinem
January 18, 2000
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Just when you think it's safe to dislike a truly dislikable woman, she is treated so unfairly that you have to empathize. I'm speaking of the merciless humiliation of Linda Tripp.
For nearly two years, the media have focused almost totally on her looks, not her acts. I, too, wish she could have had a character transplant. But being born less than conventionally attractive is hardly a bigger crime than taping the confidences of a friend (plus entertaining your bridge group with them).
Taken together, her cosmetic and moral sins have been used to justify anything. Presidential wannabe Donald Trump called her "the personification of evil."
This hostility was her reported reason for undergoing unnecessary plastic surgery, a body carving so drastic that Lucianne Goldberg, her friend and co-conspirator, told the National Enquirer, "It looks like she's had a head transplant."
As a well-socialized woman, Linda Tripp had internalized the fault - "I was responsible for the portrayal in the media by the way I looked," she told People magazine - rather than challenge the fault finders.
Most tragically, Tripp's transformation seems to have been in vain. John Goodman, the beefy comic, has said he will go right on donning drag and a fright wig to do his portrayal of Tripp, pre-surgery and pre-weight loss, on "Saturday Night Live."
Such ridicule may be new in scope, but not in purpose. It has long been the most popular way of disheartening and dehumanizing women, as well as less powerful groups of men. Think of the 19th-century cartoons of apelike Negroes and Irish, the portrayal of suffragists as "unnatural women," or the bucktoothed Japanese in World War II comic books.
Powerful men may be lampooned too, but not with the goal of proving their inferiority by looks alone. For example, think of all the funny-looking white guys who have been given a comparatively free ride, from paunchy robber barons to chicken-necked anchormen. There also are media moguls with one strand of hair twirled around their heads, and U.S. senators who look like turtles without shells. (Does this offend you? Of course. No one should be judged by the vulnerabilities of the flesh.)
Women also are attacked as a way of demeaning the men they are attached to. It's the civilized form of raping the enemy's women. Thus, Eleanor Roosevelt's looks were ridiculed because of her husband's controversial policies as well as her own, while less attractive and active wives of status quo presidents were left alone or praised.
Hillary Clinton and Monica Lewinsky reaped the whirlwind of hatred for Bill Clinton. And ridiculing Tripp and Paula Jones was easier than taking on Kenneth Starr, the independent prosecutor.
It's not just the so-called unattractive woman who pays a price. No matter how long and hard she may work, a pretty woman often finds her success attributed to her looks, even to sleeping her way to the top. (If this were possible, there would be many more women at the top.) Compliments about her appearance may go to her husband or boss, as if she were an artwork or acquisition.
What is new is the all-pervasiveness and acceptability of cruel external judgments. In this media-saturated era, our every response is mediated. Since the media are also financed by products sold on insecurity, there has never been so much rating and berating of people, especially female people, for looks alone.
In recent years of backlash against women's advances - a free-floating hostility that stretches from rock lyrics to bombed abortion clinics, from Internet pornography to obstructionists in Congress - this attention has become suffused with meanness. Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton are just exaggerated versions of what may be in store for anyone.
Actions are fair game, but conditions of birth are not. Consider whether the ridicule of a woman would be directed against a man - whether the characterization of someone without power would be made of someone with it.
More to the point: What if the same style of reporting were directed at you?
Gloria Steinem is the consulting editor of Ms. magazine. This first appeared in the New York Times.