A Very British Scandal: The women judged for their sex lives

These TV series uncomfortably reflect unjust ratios in the real world, and research into how unfairly women are treated helps explain what happened to our sex scandal protagonists, too. Women who attempt to seek justice for privacy violations around other image-based crimes, such as what is often called “revenge porn”, have been found to experience victim-blaming that has long been observed in other areas of crime, like rape. In 2016, a Crown Prosecution Audit found that in 309 rape cases in England and Wales, 13% of cases had applications made asking the court to hear past sexual history evidence – despite a legal prohibition that condemns this – and 8% were successful. That is almost 1 in 10 cases in which a woman’s irrelevant past sexual behaviour was used to try and discredit her. With “revenge porn”, a term commonly used to describe image-based sexual abuse, research from Australia published in 2020 found that victims were perceived as more promiscuous and more blameworthy when they were more naked in the images that were shared.

With the real-life stories of these TV dramas, there is a bizarre inference of the women’s complicity in sex scandals they very much did not want; Rand Gauthier, the man who stole Anderson’s sex tape, thinks it’s fair game because he can’t distinguish her from the porn stars he watches obsessively, and in A Very British Scandal, the duke thinks it’s fair game because he abhors his wife’s behaviour. But these dramas also cleverly toe the line of not removing agency or flaws from its heroines – again, not fitting into the usual good girl/bad girl binary. The duke might be cruel, greedy and violent, but the duchess is no goody two shoes either, writing fake letters attempting to disinherit her stepchildren and performing the adultery she berates her husband for. She wants the photograph to be taken; she documents her extraordinary sex life with souvenirs taken from lovers’ clothing, or by writing the coded letter “v” in her diary. The photograph was supposed to be part of that treasure trove, shut away privately in a drawer, and carries even more meaning as her marriage worsens, her husband grows more violent and her dreams of a happy future grow more futile. Anderson’s home video is similar, a recorded memory of the actress and her husband after their wedding, preserved forever. Lewinsky may not have known she was being recorded, but she did believe she was sharing important, cherished information with a friend. And why not? Why shouldn’t they partake in this recording and gathering of significant sexual memory?

Shaming and victim-blaming

For Impeachment: American Crime Story, the production team have said that Monica Lewinsky fought to have the scene included where she flashed Bill Clinton her thong. Her insistence that her participation in the affair was visible is important, possibly because that’s not the point this series makes. It insists that trust of the deepest kind was broken – secrets shared between friends. The affair subjected Lewinsky to a life of public shaming of which she bore the weight, paralleling the inequal power dynamics that the series shows between her and the president.

Clinton may have emerged with marriage and presidency comparatively intact, but he doesn’t escape Impeachment: American Crime Story unscathed. The depiction of Clinton’s desire to control the narrative in his favour is constantly challenged by everything from the camerawork, shifting from handheld and shaky in his original, more predatory moments with Lewinsky, before turning steady and controlled as she gains more agency and distance from him, to the dialogue itself. In one episode, mid-season, he declares, “No one supports women more than me,” but the irony is not lost on either the audience nor on his own wife. In a later episode, Hillary Clinton tells him: “You disorient people just long enough so you can get what you want.” He and Linda Tripp are portrayed as villains, in contrast to the flawed yet inherently likeable Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein). The viewer finishes this series rooting for her far more powerfully than you’re left rooting for Anderson or the Duchess of Argyll. In their series, they are allowed some feminist revisionism, but Lewinsky is granted retribution.