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. 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.
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We see her drink Slim-Fast for breakfast. We see her bring her boss, Vince Foster, a tray from the cafeteria, complete with a box of M&Ms; when she prepares this tray, her hand hovers over the communal candy dish, and she furtively stuffs a few in her mouth. After Tripp encounters Lewinsky for the first time in the Pentagon, where she’s been exiled after her job went to Kathleen Willey (Elizabeth Reaser), she sniffs out Lewinsky’s desire to fit in, and pounces. The two women bond in the cafeteria over their past trauma of being teased for their looks, forging the foundation for Tripp’s betrayal.
By the point I saw Lewinsky eating her frozen dinner in silence, in a scene intercut with Tripp watching the news in the dark, with her own meager meal in front of her, I got the point it seemed Murphy was trying to make: Linda Tripp and Monica Lewinsky’s bodies and their discomfort with their looks is what drove each of them to make the decisions that would change the course of their lives.
During the real-life impeachment trial, the press vilified both women, critiquing their looks with an unrestrained glee resembling the unhinged mania of the British tabloids at their hideous peak. John Goodman’s Linda Tripp impersonation on SNL—in which he jokes that Tripp’s next job is being a linebacker for the NFL—is a prime example of the kind of invective that was thrown her way. As for Lewinsky, the relentless scrutiny was enough to effectively send her into hiding for years.
In the show, the focus on these women’s bodies and their hangups with them serves as an attempt at humanizing them as well as a convenient excuse for why they made the choices they did. But Murphy relies far too much on this metaphor and the first episode is heavy-handed and rude. It’s not arch enough to be camp; frankly, it’s lazy.
Tripp’s story is complicated, but ultimately, she was driven towards this act of betrayal because of a craven desire for power and all it entails—not because of her weight. Monica Lewinsky made a decision she regrets, but has done her best to not let a single blowjob define the rest of her life. But because Murphy’s work is characterized by a distinct lack of subtlety, oftentimes in service of melodrama over storytelling, what we’re left with at the end of the first episode is the sinking feeling that as very recent history plays out on prime time television over the next few weeks, we will be forced to indulge Murphy’s blinkered vision of these women’s motivations.