In some ways, Monica Lewinsky and Linda Tripp were your average coworkers. They gossiped about the job they hated over lunch, shopped together for overpriced home decor at Crate & Barrel, and even had the occasional sleepover where they helped pick out each other’s clothes. But as key players in Bill Clinton’s 1998 sexual misconduct scandal, their friendship also included illegally recorded phone calls and an FBI sting about an affair with the most public man in the country: the president of the United States.
In our current age of reexamining the ways in which public women have been unfairly villainized, Lewinsky, once defamed and derided by both sides of the aisles, has since been redeemed as a relatable, funny, and self-deprecating anti-bullying activist with 1.1 million Twitter followers and columns in Vanity Fair. This season of FX’s Impeachment: American Crime Story turns that critical eye on the friendship between Lewinsky (Beanie Feldstein) and Tripp (Sarah Paulson); it’s a case study of the vicious world of office frenemies.
Frenemies—the portmanteau of “friend” and “enemy” identifying an all-too-familiar dishonest bond between confidants—often bring to mind bullying between teenagers. But keeping your enemies close is not a tactic that only works in high schools; Capitalism thrives on the scarcity mindset of competition, making the deceptively polite veneer of frenemy relationships somewhat essential for upward mobility in the workplace. For women, the road to economic success often includes internalized sexism, and the attendant belief that there are limited opportunities for women on the corporate ladder.
The business magazine Inc. recommends making more frenemies in the office as a way to use a friendly rivalry to “rededicate yourself” to your work. Forbes, on the other hand, counsels readers on how to avoid getting stabbed in the back by work frenemy, who “will get close enough to you to find your weak spots.” In Impeachment, Tripp wasn’t vying for Lewinsky’s job title, but she manipulated Lewinsky’s vulnerability in their friendship to her own ends in building a case against Clinton after Tripp was exiled from the White House. By teasing out Tripp’s exploitation of female insecurities and Lewinsky’s naive longing for community, Impeachment exposes the treacherous underbelly of office politics for women.
Paulson plays Tripp as a crusader against Clinton’s indiscretions. The irony is, through Tripp’s behavior, we see that an abuse of power is not synonymous with a struggle between men and women. Here, it happened in the intimate moments shared in confidence of supposed sisterhood.
The phenomenon is so pervasive that Katherine Crowley and Kathi Elster wrote an entire book about how to navigate toxic work relationships between women: Mean Girls at Work: How to Stay Professional When Things Get Personal. “While men tend to compete in an overt manner—jockeying for position and fight to be crowned ‘winners’—women often compete more covertly and behind the scenes,” they write. “This covert competition and indirect aggression is at the heart of mean behavior among women at work.” Competition isn’t absent between men, but as explained in Katie Couric’s new memoir, Going There, the rivalry between women can look like Couric’s failure to mentor rising on-air female talent because of the fear that they might replace her one day.
If frenemies are the antagonists in an average job, then that masked hostility is only multiplied in the highest office of the country. Tripp started as a temporary secretary during the Bush administration, but was brought on full-time with Bernie Nussbaum and Vince Foster, who served as Clinton’s White House Counsel in 1993. Six months into Clinton’s tenure, Foster famously died by suicide, and less than a year later, Nussbaum resigned from office leaving Tripp’s job security in limbo. Nussbaum’s replacement, Lloyd Cutler, chose not to keep Tripp on as a secretary and hired a friend, Kathleen Willey (played by Elizabeth Reaser). Tripp, meanwhile, was moved to a position at the Pentagon’s Department of Defense—a step down from the White House position, which Tripp told journalist Nancy Collins was her dream job since childhood.
Foster’s death was a catalyst for the newly growing discontent toward the White House, and she began to question whether his death was actually a suicide. Losing her job to Willey, a former White House volunteer, only made that resentment grow stronger. In this case, similarly to most male-dominated industries, the Oval became a revolving door of (mostly) men in power, and Tripp’s position as a secretary (one that was traditionally relegated to women) was completely at their mercy. Instead of teaming up with her female coworkers for genuine support, Tripp did what insecure workers sometimes do: she tried to use them as stepping stools.
Impeachment uses Willey and Tripp’s connection to establish a pattern: Tripp had a history of attempting to leverage her friendship with women on the job to her advantage. In a scene between the two coworkers, Tripp finds out that Willey and Clinton shared a kiss while meeting to discuss a permanent position, and she later tries to leverage Willey’s friendship with Cutler to secure jobs for both herself and Willey in the White House counsel’s office. So when Cutler chooses Willey alone, Tripp suggests it's because she’s getting special treatment from Clinton. “We all know why I’m being fired and you get to say,” Tripp says. “You got my job because the president wants you around.” Willey’s relationship with the president only became a problem when Tripp couldn’t benefit from it. For all of Tripp’s frenemy machinations, she wasn’t all that effective in actually getting what she wanted.
Following Foster’s death, Tripp met Lucianne Goldberg, a literary agent who was interested in a tell-all book about Tripp’s time in the White House. Unfortunately for Tripp, curiosity surrounding Foster was waning and her access to the White House by then had been cut off—until she met Lewinsky, a 22-year-old who was having a two-year affair with Clinton. Lewinsky—27 years younger than Willey—becomes Tripp’s newest frenemy mark, but in this case it was revenge, not a promotion, that she sought.
Lewinsky and Tripp both arrived at the Department of Defense dejected, as exiles from their past life at the White House. From the start, Tripp insinuates that a woman as young as Lewinsky must be someone’s “pet rock” to have secured a position as the assistant to Kenneth Bacon, the department’s spokesperson. Eventually, Tripp gains Lewinsky’s trust enough to be let in on her secret and helps her put together an Excel sheet of every interaction between her and Clinton. With encouragement from Goldberg, Tripp began illegally recording her phone calls with Lewinsky which, in addition to the Excel sheet, became a directory of incriminating information against Clinton. When Lewinsky confronts Tripp after she went on-the-record for a Newsweek article about the kiss between Willey and Clinton, Tripp admits her logic: She’s at war with the White House. As Impeachment progresses, it becomes clear that Tripp’s deception is less about betraying Lewinsky than avenging what she considered a personal wrongdoing at the hands of the Clinton administration.
One of Tripp’s most Machiavellian moves comes when Lewinsky shares that she plans on wearing the blue dress (yes, that dress) to a job interview. “I want you to look thin and beautiful,” Tripp says in an attempt to keep the dress soiled (and a match for Clinton’s DNA). “The truth is you look heavy in that dress.” Tripp had learned Lewinsky’s insecurities, like her weight, and used them against her. She undercut her opponent—even though her problem was never with Lewinsky.
If frenemies are marked by competition, there are a few reasons to consider why Tripp would view Lewinsky, or Willey for that matter, as rivals. Impeachment’s sketch of Tripp lies in the subtleties of how they portray ageism, pretty privilege, and each woman’s proximity to power. The 24-year age difference between Tripp and Lewinsky found the 48-year-old positioning herself as a motherly figure who was there to help. She built trust with Lewinsky by intimating closeness in utterances like, “I would tell this to my own daughter.” Meanwhile, Tripp tries to demean Willey in cutting jabs, making remarks implying that Willey was only a White House volunteer because she married rich.
But what is most revealing in Paulson’s depiction of Tripp is her infatuation with these women. She is the archetype of the type of woman who actively seeks frenemies—one who drums up enmity regularly even when it's not necessary. “I have reason to believe that Hillary didn’t want me near the president,” she says, although a bathroom scene between her and the First Lady proves they are indeed strangers. The competition Tripp concocts with both Lewinsky and Wiley points to an unspoken and underlying bitterness for not having been chosen by the president.
Tripp, who paints herself as a worthy protagonist by overselling her role in the political world, doesn’t just have “main-character energy,” but her perspective of her position in the White House is deeply skewed. Despite Tripp labeling herself as a political hero, we’re told three times (by Lewinsky, Willey, and another former coworker) that no one wanted her in the White House. In her interview with Collins, when asked if she thought she betrayed Lewinsky, Tripp replied, “No, absolutely not.” Impeachment leaves Tripp’s motives up to interpretation, but signals that she genuinely believed turning on Lewinsky was the right thing to do to prove her value to a place where she was overlooked. Tripp’s backstabbing shows that bonds between women can be weaponized into tools of destruction in the name of career advancement—even when no such advancement actually happens. In the end, Tripp, who passed away last year at the age of 70, maintained neither those female relationships, nor her prestigious position in the White House, but she did achieve lasting infamy as the country’s most famous office frenemy.
Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.