The thong, with its thin straps and minimal coverage, is an undergarment entangled with questions surrounding the appropriateness and delicacy of female sexual confidence. According to the 1996 Starr Report, Monica Lewinsky, then a White House intern, first seduced then-President of the United States, Bill Clinton, by showing him the straps of her thong underwear. The thong is an overtly sexual object, based on what it reveals and conceals, and the female sexual confidence it symbolizes when women take agency over its visibility. The thong highlighted Lewinsky’s sexual bravado, and its materiality informed her media portrayal as a delicate, promiscuous and immoral woman.
The thong is an overtly sexual object. Its aesthetic, structure, and cultural connotations combine to represent a specific female sexuality – one that is aggressive, unyielding and promiscuous. Monica Lewinsky, then a 22-year old White House intern first seduced the President of the United States Bill Clinton in 1996 by “lift[ing] her jacket and show[ing] him the straps of her thong underwear” (Starr). The thong has in many ways been imbued with meaning through various cultural moments, and it is difficult to untangle the thong’s structure or meaning from “that woman” who transitioned the thong into the mass cultural psyche. Moreover, the thong’s composition itself parallels the media depictions of Monica Lewinsky throughout the scandal. Specifically, the thong’s relationship with visibility, delicacy, color and edibility present it as an object that feeds into various negative portrayals of female sexuality, which then became mapped onto Lewinsky through her use of it.
The shape of the female thong leaves the buttocks exposed through a string rear and includes a slip at the front to hide the genital area. The most visible element of the thong is the thin strap or string that connects the front and back regions and rides high on the hips. This strap is so thin it becomes alterable, allowing the wearer or someone else to grip or reposition it. This scripts how people interact with the object, as the straps can be easily exposed in low-riding clothing, as Lewinsky did in the November 1996 interaction that initiated her first sexual encounter with President Bill Clinton.
Visibility is central to the thong’s aesthetic and meaning. What it chooses to conceal and what it does not compared to other “conservative” underwear makes it so that wearing a thong is a deliberate choice that sends a message about the wearer’s sexuality. Thong straps on display broadcast a certain sexual confidence and availability. Although overt female sexuality is generally perceived negatively, as evidenced by the media portrayals of Lewinsky, her sexual bravado was underlined by the recipient of her “advances”: the President. As Barbara Walters put it to Lewinsky directly in an interview, “How did you have the nerve?” (Monica). The media depictions of Lewinsky’s thong emphasize her employment of the thong as a tool with manipulative power, with phrases such as “Eve had her apple. Monica had her thong” (Youngblut). This comparison draws parallels between instances in which women either succumbed to or incited dangerous temptation, furthering the thong’s negative gendered associations and equating sexual confidence to sin. This phrase also weaponizes the thong, creating the impression that Lewinsky was using it to pursue sinister higher ambitions. All of these assumptions combined to present Lewinsky as a sexual temptress, with the straps of her blue thong as her weapon of choice.
The thong’s visibility is also central to the garment’s acceptability in the workplace, in which it is worn to prevent the display of panty lines in order for women to be presented as “professional” in the workplace. According to Forbes guide to “What Not to Wear to Work”, wearing anything that reveals panty lines is “inappropriate office attire” (Sinberg). Through using the thong to attract the President’s attention, Lewinsky reversed the thong’s function as a concealing mechanism, instead choosing to reveal it in an office setting for a specific sexual/romantic goal. The Lewinsky-Clinton scandal was always characterized as an inappropriate “office” relationship. This also gets mapped onto the thong through Lewinsky’s transformation of the thong from a practical item to a sexually deviant one.
How the thong feels to the touch is a crucial aspect of its materiality. In general, thongs are thin, flimsy and delicate, typically made or embellished with cotton, silk or lace. The thong’s delicate material scripts very careful interactions, also due to the thong’s associations and proximity to the genitals. This relates to Monica Lewinsky in terms of how she was portrayed as delicate and love-sick, reinforced through the emphasis on her youth and emotional vulnerability. In the chronology of the Lewinsky-Clinton affair detailed by the Starr Report, Lewinsky is often described as in need of validation from the President. In the Tripp Tapes, Lewinsky is heard expressing worries that the President would forget who she was if she did not see him often (Starr). These depictions of insecurity and helplessness offer a different, yet still harmful representation of Monica Lewinsky and female sexuality overall. Here, we see a woman beholden to a powerful man to receive validation and positive self-esteem. As an undergarment or lingerie item, thongs are often viewed to serve this similar purpose – an article of clothing put on for male approval and pleasure.
The delicacy and wispiness of the thong also scripts a more distinct interaction: consumption. Through the use of digestible materials, the thong has also been constructed as a sex toy, which even more overtly intensifies the thong’s link to the genitalia it conceals. This association also relates to Monica Lewinsky. The Starr Report explicitly details the sexual “encounters” between Lewinsky and Clinton, almost all of which included oral stimulation on Lewinsky’s part. The perceived vulgarity of oral sex, combined with Lewinsky’s judged licentiousness exhibited by her thong-flashing, made the whole affair, in a word: trashy. Moreover, the link between the thong, sex and consumption extended to coverage of Lewinsky’s personal eating habits and weight gain. Many tabloids were unable to separate Lewinsky’s weight and her sexuality, with one article saying “Respectable middle class America finds [Lewinsky] ‘gross’ in both her sexual willingness and her large appetite for comfort food” (McElvoy). By equating these distinct aspects of her life, “respectable middle class America” distinguished its values from that of Lewinsky. Through this characterization, all of Lewinsky’s actions became grotesque and even immoral, which extends to her thong-wearing.
Although not much is known about the design of Lewinsky’s specific thong and no specifics are mentioned in the Starr Report, the color was identified by some tabloid outlets: blue (Howe). Blue became a recurring hue in the Lewinsky-Clinton scandal as the infamous blue dress emerged, stained with the President’s semen. In terms of materiality, the thong and the dress differ greatly. The dress could be described as “modest,” as it is knee-length, with long sleeves, and a collar. There is also an interesting timeline connection – the blue thong as the object that initiated the first sexual encounter, and the blue dress as the article removed during the last. Moreover, the blue dress proved that Lewinsky was telling the truth about the affair, while the thong remained the almost weapon-like garment that was evidence of her active role in initiating the relationship. Additionally, despite the modesty of the dress, its semen stain also allowed it to be doused in assumptions about Lewinsky’s sexuality. The blue dress and the thong are linked by sexual stains and with the negative assumptions surrounding Lewinsky’s sexuality.
For many, Monica Lewinsky’s thong was their first introduction to the undergarment. Therefore, the thong, and all of its aesthetics and materiality, will always be entangled with their perceptions of Lewinsky – sexually aggressive, sensitive and ready for sexual consumption. Through its flimsy material and alterable straps, the thong’s materiality directly scripts these significances.
Howe, Caroline. “EXCLUSIVE: Secret Service Officer Tells How Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky Were Caught Having Sex on Oval Office Desk and How the Intern was Transferred to Work for Hilary – but the President Brought Her Back to the West Wing in a PAID Position.” Daily Mail, Associated Newspapers, 21 June 2016, www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-3652404/Secret-Service-agent-tells-Bill-Clinton-Monica-Lewinsky-caught-having-sex-Oval-Office-desk-intern-transferred-work-HILLARY-President-brought-West-Wing-PAID-position.html. Accessed 3 May 2018.
McElvoy, Anne. “Monica’s Put on Weight. Now That Really Is Unacceptable…” The Independent, 18 Nov. 1998, www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/monicas-put-on-weight-now-that-really-is-unacceptable-1185608.html. Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.
“Monica Lewinsky Interview [Part 1 of 6].” YouTube, uploaded by Aliot77, 2 Oct. 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v=fpCv-UT2yCU. Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.
Sinberg, Laura. “What Not To Wear To Work.” Forbes, 22 July 2009, www.forbes.com/2009/07/22/office-fashion-sexy-forbes-woman-style-clothes.html#6bebf4ca79f6. Accessed 3 May 2018.
Starr, Kenneth. The Starr Report. Washington Post Company, 1998. Washington Post, www.washingtonpost.com/wp-srv/politics/special/clinton/icreport/icreport.htm. Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.
Youngblut, Shelley. “Her Siren Thong.” Salon, Salon Media Group, 29 Sept. 1998, www.salon.com/1998/09/29/feature_407/. Accessed 20 Feb. 2018.