Since then, I’ve applied a similar approach to the lives of other vilified women: Katie Hill, a former representative who resigned in a revenge porn scandal; Paula Broadwell, the onetime mistress (a word that has no male equivalent) of Gen. David Petraeus; Amanda Knox, who a decade ago was cleared of the sensational murder of her roommate but has struggled to find her footing since. These women were at times sympathetic characters and other times not, but plenty of nuance was left out of all their stories.
So I am not immune to the appeal of this redemption arc. And yet …
There is a term I learned recently: “scopophilia.” It means “the love of looking.” It could refer to pornography or even a car crash, but it is often used in film to describe the way we look at women who are portrayed onscreen. It is no secret that humans love consuming spectacle — and we doubly love a spectacle when it involves women and sex. But at what point does the fictional depiction of that spectacle, and our viewing of it, become just as bad as watching it in the first place?
Ursula Macfarlane, the director of an upcoming Netflix documentary about Anna Nicole Smith, the troubled actress and model who died of an accidental drug overdose at 39, said when the project was announced, “Now feels like the right time to re-examine the life of yet another beautiful young woman whose life has been picked over and ultimately destroyed by our culture.”
Perhaps — but at what point do such re-examinations merely perpetuate the tropes that made them worthy of applying hindsight in the first place? Who gets to tell such stories, who should profit from them, and when does all that talk about reframing and about upending the male gaze become more about the performance of redemption than about the woman at the center?
The writer Kathryn VanArendonk has called this recent genre “empathy tourism”: an attempt to take viewers on a voyage to a past that’s recent enough to be recognizable but distant enough to feel bizarre. As a result, some efforts — and, perhaps even more so, the way that people talk about them — can tip into a kind of smugness.
We can still consume these stories, but through the lens of enlightenment. We get to feel good about where Ms. Lewinsky is today (she’s a producer!) but we still get to gawk at her flashing her thong to the president of the United States — a scene that, as she told me, she reluctantly signed on to.
We can nod along to heavy-handed dialogue — for example, “Sluts,” Ms. Anderson’s character declares after a disappointing court ruling, “don’t get to decide what happens to pictures of their body.” But we also get to do so while looking at her.