Opinion | Stormy Daniels, Feminist Hero?

It was 10 years before she finally broke that silence. Speaking at the Forbes 30 under 30 conference, she delivered a powerful speech about bullying and her experience surviving shame and public humiliation. Later she wrote an essay for Vanity Fair after the death of Roger Ailes, the man who had orchestrated much of her public torment at emerging Fox News. “The media were able to brand me. And that brand stuck, in part because it was imbued with power,” she wrote. (Lewinsky has focused much of her time since writing and speaking about the effects of bullying, shame and silence on young women.)

Years before Lewinsky, Donna Rice, a 29-year-old actress and model, became the central female figure in the first political sex scandal of the TV age. After the Miami Herald broke the story of Democratic presidential nominee Gary Hart’s affair with Rice, she was endlessly dragged through the mud. As they would later do to Lewinsky, the press hounded Rice for years — following her, camping out at her home and tracking her every move. Pictures of her in skimpy bathing suits were splashed on every TV screen and magazine cover. She was lambasted as a bimbo. (Hart didn’t fare so well either; he ended his presidential campaign just a few days after the story was made public.)

Rice herself didn’t speak publicly about the affair until 31 years later, after a Hollywood studio made a movie about the scandal starring Hugh Jackman without consulting her. “I chose silence. … I chose the high road,” she told ABC’s Amy Robach in 2018. But the price she paid for taking that high road was steep. The pictures and images of her “fit the narrative that I was a temptress, a bimbo.” She told People, “I felt I was put on trial. … My reputation was destroyed worldwide.” (Rice has spent much of her professional life running a non-profit called Enough is Enough, aimed at making the internet safer for families and children.)

It’s easy to see why neither Rice nor Lewinsky felt they had anything to gain from trying to tell their side of the story or defend themselves, given the vast power imbalance of their circumstances. They were women alone, up against an entire media establishment hell bent on getting ratings off public shaming. They were on the wrong side of powerful political figures and living in a world that needed them to be the vixens.

All of which is why the Stormy Daniels scandal stands apart. From the beginning, powerful men tried to keep her silent, yet she repeatedly and doggedly fought to tell the world her story. Her first effort came in 2011, when she reportedly struck a deal with In Touch magazine, even taking a lie detector test to validate the story. Trump’s attorney Michael Cohen reportedly threatened to sue, and In Touch killed the story.

Undeterred, Daniels tried again in 2016 when Trump was running for president, contacting the National Enquirer to make a deal. But instead, editor in chief David Pecker, a Trump ally, allegedly collaborated with Michael Cohen to offer her a “catch and kill” deal. They would buy the rights to her story in exchange for $130,000 and a non-disclosure agreement. The details of how that money was initially paid by Cohen and reimbursed by Trump from the White House in 2017 are at the heart of Trump’s legal peril now. (Trump denies having an affair with Daniels.)

Daniels initially complied with the non-disclosure deal she signed. But in 2018, the Wall Street Journal broke the story of Trump’s alleged payment to Cohen, publishing images of the checks. When Trump claimed he never signed the agreement, Daniels saw an opening. She challenged the validity of the NDA head on, suing to invalidate it. Then she wrote a tell-all book, doing interviews with media outlets and forging lucrative business deals and a massive social media following along the way.

Since then, Daniels has leveraged her platform to emasculate Trump at every turn, first by revealing salacious details about his manhood in her book and then by mastering Twitter, where she refers to him only as “Tiny” to her 1.2 million followers, cutting him where it hurts most — his macho persona. Several times a day she confronts her trolls and harassers, reasserting her story, using humor and sarcasm to disarm the haters. Examples are too numerous and inappropriate for these pages but it’s worth a scroll.

Obviously, Daniels is no saint or altruist. She’s making every possible dollar off the scandal. Merch sales and movie promotions feature prominently on her social media accounts. But there is also something admirable about her chutzpah, her refusal to back down, be sidelined, silenced, ignored or underestimated. She has persisted.

So far, the strategy has worked, and things have not gone well for the men who have tried to intimidate her. Cohen went to jail for his role in buying her silence. Her lawyer, Michael Avenatti, tried to defraud her, stealing her book advance by forging documents with her name on them. But he also landed in jail. And now Trump may end up a loser too. Daniels assisted prosecutors in the case against Trump. But perhaps as importantly, she might have assisted in influencing the court of public opinion. An Economist/YouGov March poll found 46 precent of Americans believe Trump should be indicted for his actions.

Why was Daniels able to break the cycle of silence that has held women back for so long? For one, by choosing a career in porn, she had already rejected social norms and sexual mores, embracing a life of maximum exposure. That set her up to challenge a sexist social convention in ways that other women who preferred not to have their sex lives exposed could not.

Still, it’s easy to say that as a porn star, Daniels had nothing to lose by speaking out. But that would diminish the courage it takes to confront powerful bullies. Challenging Trump, who has an uncanny ability to unleash hate and even violence against those who go up against him, can be especially dangerous. Even if, in a post #MeToo age, traditional media might be less apt to pillory Daniels than it was Lewinsky or Rice, she faced plenty of real danger in speaking out. In recent weeks, she has had to increase her personal security in response to threats against her.

To consider Daniels a kind of feminist hero may seem discordant on the surface. She’s immensely self-interested and works in an industry that can be profoundly exploitive and abusive of women. Still, in many ways she’s exactly what feminism espouses: A self-possessed woman in full control of her choices, sexually liberated, free and confident enough to do as she pleases with her body, career, life and voice.

It remains to be seen whether Daniels has made it easier for other women to speak out on their own terms and break the cycle of shame and silence that has held us back for too long. Perhaps she is uniquely able to break norms because she never accepted them in the first place. But it’s just as possible that she forged a new paradigm where the cycle of women’s evisceration in the public square has ended.

Here’s hoping.

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