Social Dramas and Cultural Performances:
All the President’s Women

by Elizabeth Bell
ABSTRACT: Victor Turner’s social drama is exemplified in the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, a two-year saga that captivated the American media, government, and public from 1998-2000. The social drama, with its stages of breach, crisis, redress, and reintegration, however, tells only half the story. Concurrent to the drama, a running metasocial commentary occurred on the Internet in the form of “Monica and Bill” websites, replete with thousands of jokes, graphics, and parodies. This essay analyzes these cultural performances for their perpetuation of hegemonic masculinity and rescue of heternormativity through the President’s women—Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The social drama and the cultural performances that mirrored it on the Internet serve phallocentric social and political orders.

Victor Turner defines the social drama as "a sequence of social interactions of a conflictive, competitive, or agonistic type" (33), and he delineates its stages as breach, crisis, redress, and reintegration or schism. More simply put, the social drama begins when a member of a community breaks a rule; sides are taken for or against the rule breaker; repairs—formal or informal—are enacted; and if the repairs work, the group returns to normal, but if the repairs fail, the group breaks apart. Each time I have taught Turner’s social drama in my graduate Performance Theory class, I have been blessed and cursed with timely exemplars: the O.J. Simpson murder trial, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, and the September 11 attacks on the United States. If Turner’s explication of Ndembu social life or the Brazilian Umbanda was distant to my students and me, then the social dramas unfolding around us made Turner’s theory and analysis come alive.

But it is another September 11 that prompts this analysis. Only in retrospect and with no small amount of irony, do I recall that on September 11, 1998, the U.S. House of Representatives released the Starr Report to the public. Eight months before, Monica Lewinsky’s name first appeared on Matt Drudge’s internet website, the Drudge Report, and media frenzy in the intervening months whipped the public’s appetite for the details. On September 11, 1998, these details, in 2,600 pages and eighteen boxes delivered to the House of Representatives, were uploaded into cyberspace.[1]

Seven years later, it’s difficult to remember the media frenzy, and even harder to grasp our two-year cultural fascination with Bill Clinton’s sex life.[2] But I’d like to imagine Victor Turner—back from the grave—having a hay day with MonicaGate as the textbook case of his theory of the social drama. The antagonists were “star members” of their groups, the breach was sexual and salacious, no group escaped side-taking and meaning-making in the crisis phase, and the drama’s redress, an impeachment trial in the U.S. Senate, was—to say the least—historically monumental. Democrats and Republicans shook hands afterwards in the rotunda of the Capitol Building in a “Kodak moment” for Turner’s notion of “reintegration.”

Communication scholars have utilized the lens of Turner’s social drama to explicate events as varied as the 1984 Winter Olympics (Farrell), anniversaries of John F. Kennedy’s assassination (Berg), and Detroit auto worker strikes (Fuoss) for the ways that narrative and spectacle are organized in and around the phases of the social drama. But the social drama is only half the story; Turner expends just as much effort in his works attending to cultural performances born out of the social drama. That is, social drama is the “raw material” for performances that reflect critically on the content of that social interaction. Turner utilizes a linguistic analogy, the “moods of culture” to characterize social life as moving between the indicative (“it is”) and the subjunctive (“may be,” “might be,” even “should be”). For Turner, “A social drama is mostly, at least on the surface, under the sign of indicativity. That is, it presents itself as consisting of acts, states, occurrences that are factual, in terms of the cultural definition of factuality. Every culture has a theory that certain ‘things’ actually happen, are ‘really true,’ that ‘have been’ or ‘are’” (41). “Most cultural performances,” Turner argues on the other hand, “belong to culture’s ‘subjunctive’ mood.’” Ritual, festival, carneval, folk stories, ballet, staged drama, novels, epic poems—a multitude of culturally recognized genres—are drawn from the “raw stuff” of social drama. Most importantly for this analysis, Turner claims that “what began as an empirical social drama may continue both as an entertainment and a metasocial commentary on the lives and times of the given community” (39).

The Clinton-Lewinsky saga is exemplary of the interplay between indicative social drama and subjunctive cultural performances. Richard Schechner (Performance Theory) describes this interplay as a mobius strip: the social drama’s conflicts and characters fund the content of performances; and performances, in turn, color and inflect the social drama.[3] At every turn in the indicative social drama that was the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, a running metasocial commentary and critique occurred on the Internet. Hundreds of web sites, with names like “Official Guide To Zippergate,” “Tasteless Clinton/Monica Lewinsky Jokes,” “Starr Report—Just the Erotica,” and, held thousands upon thousands of jokes, parodies, one-liners, poems, book titles, graphics, and song lyrics.[4]

While Turner couldn’t have predicted the rise of the Internet as a technology conducive to cultural performance, he certainly forecast its critical potential and the techniques it utilizes: “Genres of cultural performance are not simple mirrors but magical mirrors of social reality: they exaggerate, invert, re-form, magnify, minimize, dis-color, re-color, even deliberately falsify, chronicled events” (Turner 42). My first encounter with this magical mirror began on a tiny web site entitled, “In His Own Words.” “Impeach me!,” photo-shopped as a sign on Bill Clinton’s back, was the first image posted on the site.[5]

The now infamous encounter captured by CNN on video was typical (as we soon learned) of Lewinsky’s efforts to put herself in Clinton’s sight line. This image stood for the entirety of their two-year affair—at once clandestine and very public, at once cloyingly sweet and unashamedly licentious. This “photo-shopped” version, one of only four other manipulated photos on the site, is a stroke of genius. Casting Clinton as the butt of a school-boy joke speaks to a very sophisticated critical apprehension of the social power attendant to hegemonic masculinity, its institutional performances by men who enact it, and the cracks in the façade opened wide by social critique.

This essay explores just a fraction of the verbal and visual jokes posted on the Internet, from 1998 through 2003, to argue that the portraits of the President and his women are cultural investments in and protections of hegemonic masculinity. These texts work very hard to shore up hegemonic masculinity and to rescue heteronormativity. This cultural production is accomplished through the women of the social drama, especially Monica Lewinsky and Hillary Rodham Clinton. The lessons of Clinton-Lewinsky saga, some seven years after the drama’s resolution, speak to the perpetuation of gendered binaries and hierarchies in the service of phallocentric orders.

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