Culture / Feminism / News / Politics

Why Young People Should Care About Monica Lewinsky

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.

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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 lifea 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 usand probably any other organization that relies on grants and other government fundingit’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:

After 10 years, Monica breaks her silence: MY LIFE SUCKS!

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.

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35 thoughts on “Why Young People Should Care About Monica Lewinsky

  1. Lewinsky is facing a tough challenge: re-inventing the Monica Lewinsky “brand”.

    Her avoidance of press media for an extended time was probably good for her mind.

    The downside is that throughout that time lapse, Lewinsky was only remembered for 1 thing.

    Lewinsky wasn’t unemployable right after her private life became public news.

    She was able to capitalize on the media frenzy because the “scandal” became such a pop culture reference.

    She has had a steady stream of endorsement deals, (Jenny Craig, to name one), a handbag line, and a book deal- which looked lucrative on the surface but that Monica received very little profit from.

    Her re-invention will be much harder if she is targeting the US.

    Those in the US who vilified her previously may very well do the same again, re-hashing old jokes to tie-in with her Vanity Fair essay and so forth.

    I hope she succeeds. I really do.

    • You’re right to point out the endorsement deals. What I meant was she’s pretty much unemployable for traditional employment. It’s true she has had a lot of opportunities to make some money, at least in the aftermath of the affair.

      I hope something good can come from the piece she wrote! Bill Maher and David Letterman have already expressed regret over some of the jokes they made back in the day. So, that’s a step forward!

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment!

      • I was glad Monica got those endorsement deals. At the same time, I know the profits from those wouldn’t have sustained her throughout her schooling in London and maintain an income she could live off of and retire with.

        I think it is terrible that with her intellect and education that no traditional employer will hire her or give her a fair chance.

        I would hope that a forward-thinking employer would see hiring Monica as a smart business move; the employer gets a qualified candidate with name recognition and that employer will be cultivating a benevolent image as “the business that gave Monica a fair chance”. And Monica can rebuild.

        And given all of those years Monica stayed away from the press media, Letterman has had MANY incidents of acting like a fool, so, Monica has plenty of material to work with if she chose to tell a few jokes at Letterman’s expense :-)

  2. This is a great post. I totally agree with your points that the media needs to change the way they cover sex scandals, especially in politics. Oftentimes, the “other woman” is just shamed into silence and we forget about that perspective. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!

  3. Lewinsky was rejected by many so that Bill’s political future could be saved. Many of us have little knowledge of what so many of our young girls and women have to endure much of it is more devastating then what Lewinsky went through.

  4. I am a 59 year old feminist or, with a capital F, Feminist, or even FEMINIST!!! This article is insightful and very much needed.

  5. I’m a 56 year old “little f” feminist who supported Clinton and (*sigh*) actually believed him when he lied and said “I didn’t have sex with that woman!” This article is spot on. One positive thing that Monica and Linda gave us – we all now know to save the blue dress.

  6. I’m interested in the conflation of ML’s body image/size and her sexual appetites. It seems that not only is slut shaming a serious problem with the media’s treatment of her, but fat shaming as well. This begs the question – would the conversation have been different if she was rail thin? Or would she have been someone the media (and America) loves to hate regardless of her size? Great post.

  7. Hooray for all the feminists commenting and thanks for reblogging GIGI! @Michelle, that is a very interesting thought. I’m pretty sure Monica briefly addresses the fat-shaming herself in her HBO documentary (that everyone should watch if you haven’t, it’s on youtube!) Read some of the really shitty jokes made about her, many of which are about her weight, in this bustle article: http://www.bustle.com/articles/23586-these-terrible-monica-lewinsky-jokes-from-the-90s-will-make-you-cringe xx

    • haha letterman killed it, I usually hate that guy, but good stuff. I miss the 80s and 90s when people liked jokes

  8. What an amazing article. I was only 5 when the scandal broke, but as a 21 year old Political Science intern, I often hear Lewinsky jokes made. It wasn’t until her article came out that I learned the details about the scandal. Thank you for putting this into a completely different perspective.

  9. Ugh, I wish people would abandon the term “slut-shaming.” The problem isn’t that Monica Lewinsky is being shamed for being a “slut”; no woman is a slut. It’s a misogynist slur used to put women in their place, regardless of what they have or haven’t done, and if individual women want to reclaim it, that’s their choice, but no one can “reclaim” a slur for others who haven’t had any say in the matter. The horrible treatment of Monica Lewinsky isn’t due to anti-sex puritanism (look at how Bill Clinton, even after impeachment, is still very popular and employable); it’s about a society that virulently hates and abuses women.

    • M, I completely agree with you. In fact, Ari and I have discussed writing an article about the problems with the term “slut-shaming”. As you can see, I didn’t use it myself, just included it in a quote. (I didn’t have enough space to tackle the issue in this article.) I do think the term has been powerful in that it has defined a phenomenon (shaming women and not men for certain sexual behavior) and thus, bringing the problem more attention. But, I agree that we need a new term and should not embrace it in feminist discourse. I thank you for bringing this into the discussion and you should look out for a piece in the future on this exact subject!

  10. How could you have not heard of Linda Tripp? I’m twenty-two and I know that stuff. Come on, let’s not be ignorant of only the most sensationalized presidential scandal since Nixon.

    • Being 8 when the scandal happened might play a role. In my household it was not discussed. I didn’t even see the famous “sexual relations” TV clip until years later. Thanks for telling us you’re 22.

  11. @Violet, actually the majority of young people I spoke to about this hadn’t heard of Linda Tripp. Glad to see you’re informed.

  12. as long as it is a democrat doing this they would be protected by the media. No matter what you try to do. Remember NOW even gave out a statement protecting the President after this. Its all about the money . I stand for something until the person who is giving me money goes against what I believe then I change my mind no matter who I throw under the bus
    Good luck and keep trying just remember its who does the deed not who the deed was against according to the media
    In Twenty years your going to start writing about Sarah Palin
    How people made fun of her kids for trying to run for Vice President as a women on the GOP ticket

    • Sarah Palin is a whole different animal. She wasn’t shamed for her sexual behavior, just for being ignorant and showing a marked lack of intelligence.

      • Palin was totally targeted based on her sex, though. For the most part her sexual behavior wasn’t called into question, though there was a lot of rumor mongering about Trip (or whichever Palin’s youngest kid) being Bristol’s secret child. The motherhood aspect was really played up in general, which is what Ralph is talking about. Sarah Palin was a terrible candidate and plenty of criticism was deserved but she was absolutely subject to sexist rhetoric from news media and politicians, and her kids were fair game as well (remember Letterman cracking jokes about her pre-teen daughter getting knocked up by some baseball player?).

  13. Interesting article, but you made me feel old! When the scandal broke I was a teenager, so to hear of someone who didn’t know about Linda Tripp (or the infamous portrayals of her on SNL), the blue dress, or the cigars was a bit alarming. I suppose my parents would say the same of Watergate or the Iran-Contra affairs.

  14. She should never have opened her mouth regarding the affair. Then back stabber Linda Tripp wouldn’t have had the ammo to fuck shit up. She’s not the first nor last to service the boys at the top, it’s just a shame for her that she had to run her mouth about it. Hence, becoming nothing more than a disposable political tool in the end.

  15. I cannot imagine, at the age of 22 being caught in the big powerful political machine involving the presidency. Perhaps she made a mistake, perhaps not, but she surely did not do it on her own. How many of us would find success if we had the nations media aimed directly upon us during our own mistakes as young people. As a man, I wonder how this would have played out if the roles had been reversed. I powerful female president and a young man. There has been discrimination on so many levels from the beginning of this scandal.
    I hope she finds success, but more importantly, peace.

    Sam R. Hobbs

  16. Thank you so much for writing this article. It breaks my heart that she has been sentenced to a lifetime of humiliation for such a silly thing that has happened to many young girls. He was the one in power, he was the one who was married, and he was the one with the history of doing this with other women.

  17. What this article makes me ask is this: What is the opposite of slut shaming? Slut Celebrity? What happens to individuals and society when we celebrate promiscuity?

  18. The problem that I see is that Monica never accept her responsibility in the affair. She was wrong going with a married man, it doesn’t matter WHO that man was. What will she say if another young women had an affair with her Dad, and hurt her mother, and family. We can not just think that we can have what we want without consequences to ourselves and others.

    • What about the man’s responsibility in it? His life remained intact enough that he continues to be a national hero. What does that tell powerful men who are tempted to cheat on their spouse with their employees?

  19. Great article. I was 14 when all of this happened and I really do remember hearing / reading / seeing on the news about how this was essentially her fault for being ‘promiscuous’ and ‘easy’. Thinking back now to her age when this happened, and the fact that it was the President, gives me a much different perspective – of a young, impressionable young woman being courted by the POTUS. Very tough position for her to say no. That’s sad that 20 years later she’s still having problems getting her life on track. Something tells me she could be a spokeswoman for Sexual Pressure for Teens or some similar cause. Thanks for sharing!!
    – Zachary from http://quickmeups.com

  20. I was (a very naive) 18 years old when the Lewinsky scandal broke and I didn’t realize the gravity of Monica’s situation and what a heavy weight the “Good Girl” label is for all young women until I lived in the US for a couple of years.

    It was extraordinary to me the pressure American girls are under from the expectations of society at large – which box are you in? “Good Girl” or “Slut”?

    This was my perception of the struggle of everyday, ordinary young women’s personal “brand”, let alone the brand forced upon Monica after the %^&* hit the fan.

    I feel sorry for Monica, I really do … still!

    Thanks for your article. It throws up key points about her treatment and let’s face it, judgement by media all these years later.

    And still the fact remains, no-one wants to be Monica.

  21. Wow, I hadn’t realized how much in-the-past this all was, if you had never heard of Linda Tripp before. The thing you may not therefore realize is that Monica Lewinsky was just one of a series of women who were failed by feminists because they liked Bill Clinton more. You should Google if you haven’t heard of them: Jocelyn Elders, Lani Guinier, Paula Jones. There’s a pattern here.

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  23. OK the media is sexist …. it doesn’t change the fact that she did what she did. It becomes about a persons judgement. Yes, she was humiliated for her lack of judgement. But why would she find it surprising that she is ‘unemployable’ in any sort of media field? All she will ever be to viewers is the woman that was doing nasty things with Bill Clinton in the Oval Office.

    She certainly could find employment in some other field if she chose. But she can NEVER do anything that outs her in front of people or cameras. She wants a career in media or as a fundraising campaigner?? You eliminated those types of jobs when you a.) made the decision to do what you did and/or b.) decided to talk about it to your stupid ugly friend. Life isn’t fair. I want to be an actor and be independently wealthy. If that is ALL I hung on to I too would be ‘unemployable’

    It isn’t sexist to me ….. her situation I mean. It is of her own making. The media may focus on sex, but, the media didn’t force her to make the poor choices that she made. I can’t feel sorry for her for that.

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