When it comes to being female, the fearless ones seem to get all the flack. The phrase "well behaved women rarely make history" sure comes to mind when you think about women people "hated" 20 years ago, but have a different outlook on now. In honor of Women's History Month, here's a look back at women who made the news — but maybe not the popularity poll — back in the day.
Whether these women were interns in the White House, housewives going through dark days, or even big stars who people simply loved to hate, it seems to me that the commonality is they were women who brought up an issue — or issues — society would have preferred to look away from.
When Lorena Bobbitt cut off husband John Wayne Bobbitt's penis, for example, it was an instant punchline to comics and media jocks, with no one asking the more serious question of why in the world a wife would be driven to such an action. But a new documentary shows that it was also the beginning of increased conversation about domestic violence.
After Kurt Cobain committed suicide, wife Courtney Love was blamed as being behind it by millions of conspiracy theorists who just couldn't let go, bringing to mind old stories of the Beatles being torn apart by the band member's spouses.
"... A group of women ... were shamed in the 1990s, women who were what I call 'bitchified' — undermined, objectified, and thwarted by a sexist media narrative," journalist Allison Yarrow, author of a book on this topic, 90s Bitch: Media, Culture and the Failed Promise of Gender Equality, told NBC News last year.
Those two were far from the only ones who were publicly shamed back when you were knee-high to a grasshopper: From Bobbitt to Monica Lewinsky and beyond, read on for more about women whose cases — either in court or the court of public opinion — might look different today.
This woman, whose name became synonomous with "manhater," brought to ugly life the fact that sexism and woman-bashing were still alive and well, even in the 1990s, as NBC News reported. On the evening of June 23, 1993, Lorena Bobbitt cut off her husband's penis with a kitchen knife, USA Today reported, a horrific crime that led to such a sensational and memorable court trial, it is the focus of a new documentary produced by Oscar winner Jordan Peele, Lorena, now streaming on Amazon Prime. The four-part series aims to examine the times the Bobbitts lived in, and questions what we have learned as a society, 25 years later. The Daily Beast noted that understanding of marital rape as a form of domestic violence has grown since then. (Lorena alleged that she was abused by John, who subsequently went on to become a hero of some white males. Bobbitt was acquitted of sexually assaulting Lorena in a separate trial, according to CNN. He was arrested on domestic violence charges in 2002.) And while President Clinton's administration ushered in the Violence Against Women Act the year after Lorena's dastardly deed — for which she was acquitted, per The New York Times — some may wonder how much progress has been made toward dismantling a system of male privilege. After all, if one Gillette razor ad trying to take on "toxic masculinity" can raise the ire of thousands of men on YouTube, just because it is calling out unacceptable behavior on the part of some males, not all, how far have we truly come?
She was Grunge Rock's Yoko Ono, the woman who took the blame for a man's downfall. When Kurt Cobain was discovered dead by a gunshot wound to the head on April 8, 1994, it was just days after he had escaped drug treatment in Los Angeles by jumping a fence, according to Rolling Stone. Love, meanwhile, had been in Los Angeles, putting the finishing touches on her own second album with the band Hole, battling her own drug addictions and caring for their young daughter, Frances Bean. The death hit fans hard, with fans holding vigils worldwide. But shortly after the tragedy, fans started pointing fingers at Love. After all, she and Cobain had had a tempestuous relationship filled with drugs, depression, talk of affairs, and lots of instability. So it's not surprising that overzealous fans, and some documentary filmmakers, began to theorize that Love was somehow responsible for the rocker's death. Love — who became ultra-famous after Cobain's death for her hard rock — is guilty mainly of not fitting into conventional stereotypes of women, or mothers, either in the 1990s, or today. At least in today's world, that would be cause for discussion rather than an immediate assumption of female deviousness.
Carolyn Bessette Kennedy
They were the Prince William and Kate Middleton of their Day... young, rich, and beautiful. But when their plane crashed on the way to Martha's Vineyard, Carolyn Bissette Kennedy, the beautiful model wife of John F. Kennedy Jr. was similarly blamed for the plane crash that took both their lives (under the logic that the two were deeply unhappy and JFK Jr. was making bad decisions). The event was even more tragic for the fact that it also took the life of Carolyn's older sister, Lauren, who had grabbed an extra seat on Kennedy's plane for a weekend getaway. Of course, it was later discovered that pilot error on Kennedy's part was the cause of the tragedy. But that didn't stop Bessette's friends and family from feeling that the coverage of the disaster had been massively unfair, with all the attention on the Kennedy clan and their lost "Camelot." There were even allegations the Kennnedy clan reported tried to bully the Bessettes' greiving mom over the burial of the bodies (which were ultimately cremated), as the New York Post noted. Among the charges leveled at Bessette Kennedy following her death were that she was a cocaine user, a cheater, and a cold wife to JFK Jr. Meanwhile, little coverage at the time focused on the fact that Kennedy was a risk-taker extraordinaire who had just had a cast off from a broken ankle due to paragliding the day of the doomed flight, then deciding unwisely not to use a co-pilot. Jackie Kennedy had reportedly made her son promise never to learn to fly, as E! Online reported, a vow he broke. We will never know what kind of a public figure Bessette Kennedy would have become once she adjusted to fame — the pair had only been married two years at the time of their passing and Bessette Kennedy was known to struggle with the paparazzi attention thrown her way. But at least with the passage of time, it's been understood that she was judged harshly for her marriage into the equivalent of America's royal family.
Monica Lewinsky was another victim of '90s tabloids run amok: The intern who was discovered to have had a sexual dalliance with President Bill Clinton, as Time reported was, in an essay in which she looks back at the situation, deeply traumatized by the press coverage, which included slut-shaming, being mocked her weight and even criticized by feminists, as Time reported. Following her days in Washington, Lewinsky was unable to get a job, as New York Magazine reported. She later moved to London to get a master's degree but said that she was told she would be unable to get a job even after advancing her education at an elite school, The Guardian reported. Eventually, however, she found a purpose and passion: as an anti-bullying advocate and motivational speaker with a popular TED Talk. One of the aspects of her healing, she said in her essay, has been the number of people who reached out to her following the revelations of widespread male abuse of power in the #MeToo movement. Lewinsky seems to be just finding her voice in her 40s and has written extensively on trauma and shame. Luckily, times have changed enough to hope that she would have had less bullying and more support had the scandal broke in today's world. I believe we haven't heard the last from her.
Janet Jackson was literally one of the biggest artists of the 1990s... but her star plummeted in 2004, when during a halftime routine with Justin Timberlake at the Super Bowl, a saucy move in which he pulled at her costume accidentally exposed her right breast to millions of fans watching live television, per USA Today. Was it on purpose? Was Timberlake at fault? Did producers know about it advance, as some now claim about the infamous incident, the story behind which both stars have never revealed? It might have been the new millennium by then, but nudity on Super Bowl Sunday so offended the national mood that investigations were called for by the Federal Communications Commission, per Vox. People wanted blood... and was it any coincidence that all the blame landed on Jackson's doorstep? Even all these years later, though, the incident doesn't seem to have ever really been concluded — except for Timberlake, who told Beats 1 in 2018, shortly before he performed again at the massive game, that he had moved on and learned from the incident that came to be known as "Nipplegate," as E! Online noted. He claims to have made amends with Jackson, but the fact is, after the incident, Timberlake's career soared while newer reports say Jackson was blacklisted by MTV and VH1, creating a serious professional slump for her. At least Jackson has solid fans: When a shirtless Adam Levine played at the Super Bowl this year, miffed Jackson supporters noted the difference in how the stars were treated. No doubt Jackson never wanted to be a poster girl for national debate, but at least her experience has brought brought up debate regarding racism and sexism.