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enough about clinton: monica lewinsky on feminism and public shame

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Image: Wikimedia Commons


For the first time in a decade, Monica Lewinsky, is speaking out. Not about her affair with then president Bill Clinton exactly (of which she says only that it was an abuse of power and also consensual) but the aftermath. The essay in the June 2014 issue of Vanity Fair is for many people – and Millennials in particular – the first real look at the other half of the oft-cited political sex scandal.

‘Over time, the media circus quieted down, but it never quite moved on, even as I attempted to move on.’ Lewinsky writes about the betrayal of her friend, who went to the FBI with information about the affair; her darkest moments at the beginning of the mayhem when she had suicidal thoughts; her escape to England both for grad school and anonymity; and the job opportunities lost and projects delayed to avoid media spotlight. Her place in pop culture has been cemented but also distorted at her expense. (‘Thanks, Beyoncé, but if we’re verbing, I think you meant – “Bill Clinton’d all over my gown,” not “Monica Lewinsky’d.’)

This blunt and fiercely critical Lewinsky is not the woman – ‘That Woman’ – I imagined, probably because my expectations have been influenced by the late-night impersonations of Clinton’s now famous denial and references whenever a politician’s philandering is exposed. Too young to understand or care about stateside political drama, Lewinsky always seemed a much older enigma. As the years passed and the scandal dated, the intern in the Clinton saga seemed to be less of a person and more of a character.  Rarely, if ever, have I wondered where she might be now, if she might be cringing at Scandal and the mention of her name. (She was.)

But Lewinsky was only 24 in 1998. Now 40, she still hasn’t been able to escape her image. ‘Despite a decade of self-imposed silence, I have been periodically resuscitated as part of the national almost always in connection with the Clintons,’ she writes. ‘So, trying to disappear has not kept me out of the fray. I am, for better or for worse a known quantity.’

To some, the timing of this essay is too perfect, an attempt by Lewinsky to capitalise on Hilary Clinton’s anticipated bid for the presidency in 2016. In truth, she writes that is the rampant online shaming of young people like Rutgers student Tyler Clementi that moved her to break her silence before the upcoming elections forced her to keep quiet. Our culture isn’t any crueler, she argues, but our tactics certainly are. The penchant for public shaming on both sides of the political spectrum is short sighted. Bloggers, journalists and everyday vigilantes seize any opportunity to verbally throttle anyone whose behaviour they find offensive or simply sensational. Little thought is given to what happens to the people at the end of it. The spotlight moves on but for people like Lewinsky, the effects continue.

Where, she asks, (though mostly on the part of readers) were the feminists when she was a recent college grad at the mercy of the White House and salivating journalists?  ‘I still have deep respect for feminism…but given my experience being passed around like gender-politics cocktail food, I don’t identify myself as a Feminist, capital F.’

Nine days after the scandal broke, the New York Observer published a conversation with a group of prominent women (including writers Erica Jong, Katie Roiphe and Elizabeth Benedict), who dissected everything from Lewinsky’s looks to her intelligence, calling her ‘not brilliant’, wondering aloud whether she spit or swallowed, calling Hilary suspiciously unemotional and Bill ‘quite cute and getting cuter all the time.’ The excerpt is so absurd it might seem a parody if there wasn’t a searchable headline attached to it. It’s an example of female-driven sexism, Lewinsky writes, that she experienced while the feminist movement charged ahead.

Not a whole lot has changed. Argues Sarah Hampson in the Globe and Mail, the response to Lewinsky’s essay, from feminists, has been just as hostile and unkind as it was 15 years ago, seemingly because Lewinsky is not shy about calling out Hilary Clinton for fuelling the woman-on-woman character assassination. While I’d like to think the conversation reprinted in Vanity Fair would never happen toady, the truth is, it probably would. Consider, for example, that Lewinsky’s piece shares an issue and cover with a profile of Jon Hamm, whose Mad Men character Don Draper is beloved despite his many marital indiscretions. The women he sleeps with one the other hand– and, bizarrely, the actresses who portray them – need constantly be defended.

What makes Lewinsky’s story relevant isn’t just that Hilary Clinton might soon be the first woman to occupy the Oval Office. It’s not even that the power differentials in politics and the workplace persist, or that the sheer presence and vulnerability of interns has become of greater concern. Lewinsky represents the long-term effects of public shaming, the loss of privacy, respect, and control that comes with being young and dealing with the consequences of a bad decision in front of the entire world.

Where should the feminists have been during the scandal? Should they have stood by Lewinsky or Hilary? Both? Neither? It would be condescending to suggest that because Bill Clinton was a powerful man, feminists must stand by the woman he cheated with. The president abused the power of his office, certainly, and Lewinsky while not unintelligent, was young. I doubt that in 1998, the newly minted college graduate could have anticipated exactly what would come from her decisions. She might not have though it would get out and come to anything at all. But as Lewinsky makes clear in Vanity Fair, it was her choice to make. To demand exemption from scrutiny would deny Lewinsky any agency in the affair. This isn’t what she’s critiquing when she critiques feminists.

Instead, Lewinsky’s experience then and almost two decades later makes clear that despite declarations of sex and body-positivity and condemnations of male privilege and power, it’s easy for women to fall back on misogynistic language in their criticism of other women. There are expectations for sympathy. In Lewinsky’s case it was – and still is – silence and respectability.

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