Of Phallocentrism, the President’s Penis, and Accomodations of Interest

A number of critics tried to account for the cultural lessons learned in the Clinton-Lewinsky saga. David Steinberg, psychologist and editor of a special edition of Sexuality and Culture dedicated to the affair, gave this advice to future politicians:

1) tell the truth if some non-standard aspect of your sexuality is exposed; 2) emphasize the consensual nature of any sexual encounters, however unconventional; 3) do not apologize for having a strong sex drive; and 4) trust the American people to understand and appreciate the reality that sexual energy does not always stay within the strict boundaries of social propriety, especially for the rich and famous. (10)

Good advice for powerful white men. The same advice directed at Monica Lewinsky or Hillary Rodam Clinton, however, reveals the phallocentric boundaries and norms of heterosexuality with masculine sexual pleasure at its center. For Elizabeth Grosz,

Phallocentrism conflates the two (autonomous) sexes into a singular ‘universal’ model which, however, is congruent only with the masculine. Whenever the two sexes are represented in a single, so-called “human’ model, the female or feminine is always represented in male or masculine terms. Phallocentrism is the abstracting, universalizing and generalizing of masculine attributes so that women’s or femininity’s concrete specificity and potential for autonomous definition are covered over. (94)

The impossibility of “human” sexual expression is made explicit in the social drama and in the cultural performances born out of it. At the center of both is the President’s penis. Lauren Langman claims, “The real audience [for the impeachment trial] was public opinion as each side tried to present competing images of Clinton that fell into two categories, the immoral Anti-Christ who personified evil, sin, and perfidy and the effective leader who had a problem keeping his zipper up” (525). Clinton’s penis centers both portraits of the man, whether it is characterized as “root” of all evil or as bothersome, if willful, appendage. Loren Glass explores the calculus that is patriarchy/phallus/penis in the Clinton-Lewinsky affair:

Patriarchy to a great degree depends upon concealing the anatomical penis behind the symbolic phallus. The penis—in the end a paltry thing—must be concealed if its fictional equation to the omnipotent phallus is to be sustained. All this attention to the President’s penis reveals that the patriarchy is in trouble, that traditional discourses of masculine symbolic authority are disintegrating. (After the Phallus 547)

I would argue that this social drama and its attendant cultural performances did not evidence, or even foretell, the disintegration of patriarchy, but instead laid bare the social performance that is hegemonic masculinity and its reliance on complementary performances of femininity to produce it. The women in the drama—Hillary Rodam Clinton, Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Betty Currie, even Chelsea Clinton (the list of women does tend to go on and on)—are always cast as both peripheral to that social power yet thoroughly implicated by their sexualized roles as wives, willing lovers, unwilling lovers, secretaries, and daughters.

More than sexual, racial, or economic “double standards” for women and for men, the social drama—as formal and informal institutions and procedures—works hard to veil the phallocentric order, even as the categories “man” and “wife” are hailed as social expectations. If Loren Glass misses the mark on the disintegration of the patriarchy, then Glass’ analysis of the continued vilification of women in the drama is thoroughly on the mark: “Clinton gladly concedes power to careerist ‘ice queens’ like Hillary Rodman, Janet Reno, and Madeleine Albright, while eagerly pursuing blowjobs from trashy young sluts like Monica Lewinsky and Paula Jones. As a model of the new sensitive male, he can have his cake and eat it, too” ("Publicizing," 30).

The performances on the Internet reveal the faultlines in cultural constructions of masculinity, even as they mask and protect the political and social power that produces masculine subject positions. “Gender equality” in a phallocentric system is an impossibility. Turner writes of the social drama, "Every social drama alters, in however minuscule a fashion, the structure of the relevant social field" (92). These alterations, Turner notes parenthetically, are not a “permanent ordering of social relations but merely a temporary mutual accommodation of interests” (92). The cultural performances on the Internet serve phallocentric orders: shoring up hegemonic masculinity, rescuing heteronormative sex acts, and painting femininity as complement to masculinity. Despite its walk through “taboo” notions—unveiling the President’s penis as “stupid” or Hillary’s penis as a “secret”—the cultural performances manifested on the Internet never truly threaten the cultural order. Instead, the cultural performances are fun-house mirrors of hegemonic masculinity that parody its faulty performance, but never its primacy. The phallus remains—laughed at, pointed to, commented on—but never unsecured from its rightful place.

In between the “wild” ladies and the First Lady were a number of women that both the social drama and cultural storehouse of jokes handled with relative care. Paula Jones, Kathleen Wiley, and Juanita Broadderick offered painful accounts of unwelcome advances, touching, and, in Broadderick’s case, rape. The antagonists in the indicative social drama, the “vast right wing conspiracy,” surely could use these women and their accusations to remove a sitting President? They failed, of course, revealing not only a level of cultural uneasiness about abusive masculine power and its potential, but a larger rift in hegemonic masculinity and the institutions that bolster it. Unable to make the terms “sexual predator” or “sociopath” stick in the media, in Arkansas federal court, or in the U.S. Senate, the antagonists in the social drama didn’t even try. Instead, they fell back on legal performatives divorced from sexual deviancy, aggression, or violence: perjury, subordnation of perjury, tampering with witnesses, obstruction of justice—all of these infractions concern words that produce their effects, instead of the sex acts performed. The deflected attention to “lying about sex” secured the President’s masculine prerogatives, white privilege, and active heterosexuality; any attention to a rape in a hotel room in Little Rock, Arkansas, some 25 years ago would cut much too close to the bone. The social drama’s resolution, its “temporary mutual accommodation of interests,” was satisfactory.

Cultural performances on the Internet left Juanita Broadderick alone. Her story was not fodder for jokes, images, or parody. And therein lies the seriousness of cultural play and our collective inability to reimagine power divorced from the interlocking mechanisms that produce sexual discourse, identities, and institutions. The metacommentary available on the Internet lovingly lampoons performances of hegemonic masculinity and remembers heteronormativity as accomplished through women, but the comic route is closed off when sexual power and privilege exceed its reach. The tragedy that was Broadderick’s tale, its unserviceability to the indicative social drama and its untouchability in cultural parody, is testimony to the difficulty of erecting a sexual politics that enables choice. For Foucault, this sexual ethics is not about “freedom of ‘sexual acts,’” but “freedom of sexual choice,” including liberty not to manifest choice at all (251). While the indicative and subjunctive moods of culture focus on the sexual acts and the discourse that valorizes or erases them, the ellipse in both constructions of sex is sexual choice. When a sexual ethics of choice pervades discourse, identities, institutions, and culture, the social dramas and attendant cultural performances will really be something to see.

Until then, social dramas and cultural performances continue. Indeed, the social drama of Bill Clinton might best be sandwiched between Gary Hart’s aborted bid for the Democratic Presidential nomination in 1984 and Arnold Schwartzenegger’s successful bid for the California governorship in 2004. The rules are changing. The relevant social field, however, is still very much about “mutual accommodation of interests,” and the women—groped, touched, and fondled—are again lost from our collective memory and from Internet web sites.

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