For the first time in 10 years, Monica Lewinsky has addressed her affair with President Clinton in an article that came out last week in Vanity Fair magazine. Titled “Shame and Survival,” Lewinsky reflects on the profound humiliation she suffered as a result of the 1998 affair and how the mistakes she made at the age of 22 still affect her life 20 years later.
I recently became obsessed with the Lewinsky scandal and the media shit-storm that followed, so I was excited when I heard that this article was coming out. Apparently, I am not typical in my interest, however. Press sources have noted millennials are pretty much indifferent to the affair, having been too young when it erupted into public consciousness. Before my recent research, I had never heard of Linda Tripp (Monica’s co-worker who secretly recorded their phone conversations). I didn’t know about the blue dress or the cigar. My only memory about the affair was seeing older kids dressing as Lewinsky and Clinton on Halloween night, half-naked with lipstick smeared on their faces.
But as adults who were fed a seriously problematic image of Monica when we were kids, it’s important to reexamine our perception of her. Lewinsky went through hell. She was (and is) the victim of a fiercely sexist media, but we were too young to be critical of these messages. Now that we’re old enough, it’s time to get informed.
She was so humiliated by the press that she was suicidal
Lewinksy cites the suicide of teenager Tyler Clementi as part of the reason she wanted to speak up. She explains that after the story hit the news, her mom called her on the phone sobbing:
“(My mother) was reliving 1998, when she wouldn’t let me out of her sight. She was replaying those weeks when she stayed by my bed, night after night, because I, too, was suicidal. The shame, the scorn, and the fear that had been thrown at her daughter left her afraid that I would take my own life—a fear that I would be literally humiliated to death.”
She goes on to say she isn’t trying to equate her story with Tyler Clementi’s seeing as her public humiliation was a result of her own poor choices where as Clementi did absolutely nothing wrong. But, she writes:
“When I felt the depths of my mother’s anguish, I wished I could have had a chance to have spoken to Tyler about how my love life, my sex life, my most private moments, my most sensitive secrets, had been broadcast around the globe. I wished I had been able to say to him that I knew a little of how it might have felt for him to be exposed before the world. And as hard as it is to imagine surviving it, it is possible.”
She admits she’s basically unemployable
Lewinsky has been pursuing a career in Communications and Branding, more specifically working on charity campaigns. She interviewed for jobs in Los Angeles, New York, and Portland to no avail. She describes several interviews in the article. One employer was particularly direct:
“So here’s the thing Monica….You’re clearly a bright young woman and affable, but for us—and probably any other organization that relies on grants and other government funding—it’s risky. We should first need a Letter of Indemnification from the Clintons. After all, there is a 25 percent chance that Mrs. Clinton will be the next president.”
Another employer asked her, “If you were a brand which brand would you be?” “Let me tell you,” she writes, “when you’re Monica Lewinsky, that is one loaded question.”
Feminist media needs to step up its game
Lewinsky feels abandoned by the feminist movement.
“I still have a deep respect for feminism,” she writes, “and am thankful for the great strides the movement has made in advancing women’s rights over the past few decades. But, given my experience of being passed around like gender-politics cocktail food, I don’t identify myself as a Feminist, capital F. The movement’s leaders failed in articulating a position that was not essentially anti-woman during the witch hunt of 1998.”
She’s right. Feminists were more concerned about defending woman-friendly Bill Clinton and his impending impeachment, than standing up for the girl who put his presidency in jeopardy. As A.V Flox writes in an article titled “Did Feminism fail Monica Lewinksy,” “The Right saw her as ammunition. The Left saw her as a liability and moved quickly to discredit her, painting her as a woman prone to wild flights of fantasy, a stalker, at first. Later, they would paint her as a sexual predator who cornered the six-foot-two leader of the free world in his highly secure office and forced him to accept sexual gratification from her.” By abandoning Lewinsky in 1998, feminists were perpetuating a harmful culture which allows women to be shamed for sexual behavior. Fortunately, many media reactions are now supportive of Lewinsky’s self-advocacy, and have even been exploring their role in silencing her. The Daily Beast posted an article by Emily Shire titled “Stop Slut-Shaming Monica Lewinsky“:
“In the few paragraphs the magazine has made public, there is plenty for readers to roll their eyes over, not least of which is the cheesy writing. But our real problem with Lewinsky’s essay is that she’s had the temerity to return to the public eye when we’d rather sweep her under the rug and slut-shame her into silence.”
Perhaps the most notable article I read this past week was Time magazine’s “The Shaming of Monica, Why we Owe her an Apology:”
“To look back on the specifics now is mind-blowing. The Wall Street Journal referred to Lewinsky — in print — as a ‘little tart.’ New York magazine reported that as an adolescent, Lewinsky had spent two summers at fat camp, where she ‘paid particular attention to the boys.’ (Code word: slut.) Maureen Dowd won a Pulitzer Prize for her coverage of Lewinsky, in which she called her a ‘ditzy, predatory White House intern’ and ‘the girl who was too tubby to be in the high school ‘in’ crowd,’ among other ugly caricatures. Fox News actually released a poll investigating whether the public thought Lewinsky was an ‘average girl’ or a ‘young tramp looking for thrills.’ Fifty-four percent rated her a tramp.”
But, the rampant sexism Lewinsky had to endure back in the late 90s still exists. The New York Post welcomed her back with this insulting cover:
The article inside was worse. Titled, “Monica Lewinsky should shut up and go away,” the piece includes gems such as: “Now, Lewinsky, 40, wants our pity and, perhaps, a job she can perform while sitting upright.” The Los Angeles Times was hardly better. In a hypocritical title, “Monica, isn’t it time to leave the humiliation behind?” Author Robin Abcarian continues to humiliate her, referring to her as the “portly pepper pot” (a nickname she was given by the New York Post back in the late 90s) and a “zaftig seductress.” Abcarian then ends the article with, “She should stop exploiting her past. Time to move on.”
Moving on is exactly what Lewinsky is trying to do. What was happening in ’98 is still happening and the only way for her to be able to move on is to reframe the narrative. Abcarian is right. It is time to leave the humiliation behind. But the responsibility lies with the press, not Monica.