In the new documentary series The Clinton Affair, during a section devoted to the story of Paula Jones, there’s footage from an episode of The Tonight Show that aired in 1997, when Jones’s allegations of sexual harassment against Bill Clinton were an ongoing source of fascination for Americans. The sketch, prerecorded and presumably set in Little Rock, Arkansas, featured the fictionalized “Jones” emerging from a trailer. Her skirt was short. Her hair was big. Her stride was hip-first. Those gags were mere accessories, however, to the primary joke of the sketch, a visual punch line that punched decidedly down: the prosthetic nose, long and bulbous and intentionally grotesque, that the actress playing Jones wore to complete the simulation. The late-night camera zoomed in on it, menacingly, mockingly. The studio audience, as they got a closer and closer view of it, howled with laughter.
The American media, making fun of the woman who had accused the president of sexual harassment: It was a form of cruelty that would be repeated many times over, not just when it came to Jones, but also when it came to other women associated with Clintonian scandal. Gennifer Flowers, for one. Monica Lewinsky, for another. Here were accusations that the president had abused women as he had abused his power, and here was the court of public opinion offering its own verdict on the matter: It was the women who were at fault. They were treated, in many quarters, with a degree of sighing annoyance—“these women,” a Washington Post columnist wrote of Flowers and others, “crawling out from under rocks”—and greeted, in pop culture as well as in politics more narrowly, as sources of unwelcome disruption. They were dismissed on the terms that so many women who are deemed to be inconvenient are: They were belittled, in the most public of forums. For their appearances. For their accents. For their hairstyles. For their sexuality. Leno on Lewinsky: “She told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah—she didn’t want to give up her sex life.”