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In June 1999, Gloria Steinem’s Ms. Magazine ran a feature on Monica Lewinsky. It was entitled ‘Monica: The Morning After’ and was written by three generations of prominent feminists – Susie Bright, Susan Jane Gilman Abiola, and Wendy Abrams – all of them weighing in on what Lewinsky’s behaviour meant for feminism. The news of the then 22-year-old’s affair with the President had broken only that January. Already, we were analysing what a young woman’s sexual encounter meant for women everywhere. Already, a woman’s sexual encounter with a powerful man, meant her feminist credentials were up for deliberation.
What we, as women, do with our bodies – from surgery and sex to abortion – is a topic of fierce debate, from the dinner table to the halls of power. The same is not true for a man. A woman’s reputation is forfeited when she engages in a sexual encounter – problematic or otherwise. The same is not true for a man. We knew all these things in 1999, and yet Monica Lewinsky’s treatment, by the media, by congress, by the President himself, was nothing short of barbaric. As she has latterly said herself, “I was patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale.”
This month sees the release of Ryan Murphy’s Impeachment: American Crime Story, which will dramatise the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal and has Lewinsky herself as a producer. As she teased in one of her first public speeches in 2015, it was time to “take control of my narrative”. It appears, post #MeToo and post our #FreeBritney media revisionism, that the time has come for all of us to rethink Monica Lewinsky.
The Ms. Magazine feature was by far the least offensive reaction to Lewinsky, who has found herself the butt of the joke for more than 20 years. In the months directly following the breaking news around her involvement with President Bill Clinton, she went into hiding with her mother. She was on suicide watch. Her former boyfriends sold stories about her, her past became public property, and her private, secretly recorded conversations were blasted over the internet and the primetime news. Her sex life was global public property. It was open season on the young former intern, who was suddenly thrust into an unforgiving, unrelenting media storm which had an opinion on everything from her weight to her vagina.
She has, in recent years, confessed what this period was like for her. She describes it as being almost “humiliated to death”. Lewinsky was indeed one of the first people to suffer this global indignity online, something which has only exacerbated tenfold since the advent of social media. We have seen this happen to countless individuals – many of them women. We have seen the toll this can take and, in the case of some – notably Caroline Flack – the very real, tragic consequences of public shaming.
Lewinsky is now an activist against cyber-bullying and has dedicated her life to ensuring others do not suffer the way she was made to. Her seminal 2015 TED talk was a plea for a more compassionate world, for people to “walk a mile in someone else’s headline”. She has spoken openly and passionately about the culture we live in, where the online world feeds and profits from the misery of others. “Public humiliation is a commodity and shame is an industry," she said, as one such victim, whose very personal story was used to sell millions of tabloids and countless hours of commercials. The real price of that, was almost her own life.
Yet what is so fascinating about this culture of humiliation, is how it so regularly and instinctively targets women. Lewinsky was asked recently whether she would ever have considered changing her infamous surname to make life easier for herself. She said no. “He never changed his, why should I?” And herein lies the rub. For consider how much vitriol and shame one woman faced for a scandal that involved two people…
While Bill Clinton’s presidency was rocked by his affair with Monica Lewinsky, his reputation was not as eternally scourged. His impeachment crimes were perjury and obstructing justice. He was vilified for this, but never really for his sexual misconduct. By comparison, sex would become the yardstick by which Lewinsky was forever measured. She will perhaps always be defined by the sexual nature of her affair with Clinton – the salacious details of which were made excruciatingly public – in a way Clinton simply never will. He faced political complications for his affair, but never shame. That was reserved solely for Lewinsky.
It is no wonder that Ms. Magazine wanted to discuss what Monica Lewinsky meant for feminism. In many ways, hers was a watershed moment that proved, even as we were about to enter a new millennium, that we were still ultimately judging a woman’s worth by her sexuality. How sexy is she, how dowdy, how virginal, how promiscuous? As a woman, you must distance yourself from sex in order to be taken seriously. As a man, it is allowed to be a weapon in your arsenal that does nothing to dent your authority.
Just think about how Monica, a bright young political woman, had her intelligence dissolved by her sexuality. She was not just called a “slut” and a “whore” but a “bimbo”. A smart woman making a sexual choice – however ill-advised- was still incomputable. She must be either smart or sexual, Madonna or whore, Hillary or ‘that woman.’ At a time where we are consistently rethinking binaries, is it not time we revised the one which pervades our societal understanding of women? As Monica herself said in her TED Talk: “It was easy to forget that ‘that woman’ was dimensional.”
No matter how far we have come since 1999, it seems we are still struggling to compute the nuances of women. Even feminists cannot agree on the ‘worth’ of sex workers and society still fails, time and time again, to affix shame to a man’s sexual misconduct in the same way we do women. Monica Lewinsky’ narrative is indeed ripe for a rewrite, because, sadly, it seems we still have not learned the true lesson of her story.
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