How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior
by Laura Kipnis
Reviewed by Nancy Rommelmann
Step right up, take a seat, every one of them front row. Ah, here's our cast now: A lovelorn astronaut driving cross-country wearing a diaper, thus avoiding pit-stops on her way to pepper-spray her former lover's girlfriend. Here's lisping literary fabulist James Frey, who basked in the commercial sunshine that is Oprah and was later pinned under her magnifying glass in what might be the greatest episode of Schadenfreude TV ever. And what pantheon of humiliation is complete without Linda Tripp, Monica Lewinsky's double-crossing, wire-wearing, dry-clean-averse gal pal, whose atrocious behavior was, as Laura Kipnis points out in her highly entertaining and wickedly smart How to Become a Scandal: Adventures in Bad Behavior, matched by her remarkable physical ugliness.
"It was a face that launched a thousand jokes," writes Kipnis, citing one by Jay Leno: "Linda Tripp told Monica Lewinsky ... she hadn't had sex in seven years. That means that at some point in 1991 some guy got drunker than any man in history." (Rim shot!)
Oh, mean, mean, yes it's mean, and yet I found myself smiling as I read how these people self-sabotaged and met their comeuppances. Should I feel bad about how good it felt to recall Tripp's catastrophic attempt at social redemption by telling a press conference, "I'm you! I'm just like you"? Kipnis says, no.
"The pleasure of knocking the excessively privileged and overly lucky down a notch or two can hardly be underestimated," she writes. "Scandalizers screw things up in showy, provocative ways and the rest of us throw stones, luxuriating in the warm glow of imaginary imperviousness that other people's life-destroying stupidities invariably provide." (For more on that, I give you The Real Housewives and Jersey Shore.)
Kipnis, a cultural critic whose previous books have examined sexual politics and pornography, lays out the lavish details of each story. She includes Sol Wachtler, a former chief justice of the New York State of Appeals who committed adultery, extortion, blackmail and interstate racketeering but thought he might get away with it all by faking an inoperable brain tumor.
Tumors, diapers, Bill Clinton's cigar, Monica's thong: All, in Kipnis' words, "so cringe-making," and yet they linger in our collective memory, like embarrassing smells we nevertheless like to sniff, and perhaps need to, to remind ourselves, don't be that guy!
A strategy that Kipnis, who devotes half of How to Become a Scandal to analyzing the whys that can make us slide from social conformist to pariah, says is probably futile. "All the self-examination in the world is not going to help anyone bent on self-deception ... which is no doubt true of any of us at least some of the time. That's what having an unconscious means (and thanks for nothing)."
Shame, like any commodity, can be used to advantage, and here Kipnis boldly focuses on the sun queen herself, Oprah Winfrey, suggesting that the ups and downs of her weight and attendant self-recrimination is "skillfully calculated to hit us where we hurt," a ploy to win and keep a nation of yo-yo dieters by using the "I'm you!" to commercial advantage. As proof, Kipnis offers an issue of O magazine that featured Oprah's headline lament, over a 40-pound weight gain, "How Did I Let This Happen Again?"
"As Oprah knows, the marketplace craves infusions of shame," writes Kipnis. The issue was the biggest seller in years, and Kipnis heard it as breaking news on CNN, while she was at the gym.