As someone who was only twelve in 1998, it’s been fascinating to read the reflections and retrospective analysis sparked by Monica Lewinsky’s re-emergence into the public sphere. In her new Vanity Fair article, Lewinsky reserves special blame for feminists who failed to show up for her. Here’s a roundup of pieces by feminists — some of whom were old enough to understand and be very affected by the scandal at the time – exploring what went down in the late ’90s and reflecting on what has — and hasn’t — changed in the 16 years since.
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.
[...] Indeed, it wasn’t just Bill Clinton who didn’t even grant Lewinsky the dignity of using her name when he finally, partially, admitted the affair. (She was “That Woman” – as in, “I didn’t have sexual relations with that woman.”) There were no websites like Jezebel back then, no feminist bloggers, no Women’s Media Center to call out sexism in the press. And so the media vilified her, painting her as that scary feminine trope: the crazy, emotional Single White Female – or, to borrow the phrase from the political sex scandal before her, “a little bit nutty and a little bit slutty.” “This is all sort of part of the water at the time, where the woman is the evil seductress – and the poor, weak man had no power to resist her,” says Jennifer Pozner, a media critic and the author of Reality Bites Back, about women and reality TV. “That’s how Monica Lewinsky entered the fray.”
Reading Monica Lewinsky’s first-person Vanity Fair article, it’s hard not to go back to that place with her, the place where it seemed totally within bounds to talk about how she could “rent out her mouth” for a follow-up act (author Nancy Friday), or refer to her as “a dessert cart” (Camille Paglia), or write her off as “too tubby to be in the high-school ‘in crowd’” (Maureen Dowd).
It wasn’t just Monica who read all that. The rest of us did, too – and we all wondered which of our bad decisions could stand up to that sort of scrutiny, and whether we could ever risk making any.
It was hard – is hard – not to feel a kinship with Monica because (straight) women are intimately familiar with the idea that, if we make one wrong decision about a guy, it could mean the end of our dreams for ourselves. Pick up the wrong stranger at a bar and wind up dead. Trust the wrong frat boy to walk you back to your dorm, and wind up raped. Have sex once without birth control, and wind up pregnant, or with HIV or “that girl” filling her Valtrex prescription for the rest of her forever-alone life.
Indeed, more than 16 years after Matt Drudge took Lewinsky’s affair public, “slut-shaming” and the public humiliating of women – for real or perceived sexual indiscretions – is as ubiquitous as the internet cat meme.
But in 1998, we had yet to hear of 17-year-old Rehtaeh Parsons in Nova Scotia or 15-year-old Audrie Pott in California. Both teens were raped and afterward subject to online abuse calling them “sluts”. Both girls also killed themselves.
In 1998, it wasn’t commonplace for men to release sexual pictures and videos of their exes onto the internet as a form of revenge. Or for celebrity men to harass their former partners by posting sonogram pictures of a supposedly aborted pregnancy. Or for death threats to have become simply an expected part of being female online.
Monica Lewinsky could very well be the internet’s first humiliated woman – at least on the kind of national and international scale upon which scandals now so simply exist.
I understand why Lewinsky (and her editors) are interested in setting the record straight about her relationship with President Clinton. It must be annoying to read reporters repeatedly misinterpreting extremely private details about your life. But I’m not sure the question of whether Bill Clinton went down on Monica Lewinsky is particularly crucial to advancing our wider national conversation about sexism in politics. In fact, the media’s laser focus on Lewinsky’s enthusiastically consensual relationship with Clinton has always prevented us from having an honest conversation about the important issues of sexual harassment in the workplace posed by Clinton’s presidency. The media’s obsession with Lewinsky stole the narrative of Bill Clinton’s history of alleged sexual harassment from people like Paula Jones and Kathleen Willey, who were less enthused by his attention. And what about all the other White House interns who may have thought that, to bend the president’s ear, one must first pay lip service to other appendages? This is the bigger picture of harassment that Lewinsky—understandably caught up in her own victimization—may not be capable of seeing.
In the fervid investigation and coverage of it, both women [Lewinsky and Hillary Clinton] got hammered—as slutty and frigid, overweight and ugly, dumb and monstrous. They each became cartoons of dismissible femininity—the sexually defined naïf and the calculating, sexless aggressor, characters who illustrated the ways that sex—sex that’s had by men as well—always redounds negatively on women. These two women weren’t at odds; they were in it together.
Lewinsky writes of how her whole personhood, her whole adulthood was marked and shaped by the sexual actions she took in her early twenties. It may seem, in comparison, that Hillary—already powerful and accomplished by the time the scandal erupted—escaped comparatively unscathed; her power has surely only grown in the decades since the impeachment saga. But the legitimacy of that power is constantly questioned, by those on the right and on the left, based on the time her husband dallied with Lewinsky.
I feel sorry for Monica Lewinsky. I am not sure why it is apparently so difficult for people to simply say that, even now.
[...] I have the impression that sometimes people are afraid to say they feel sorry for someone because they think it means they can’t appreciate the nuances of the case, or that it would be condescending. Neither of these things are true; sympathy, like other high emotions, is a complicated thing.
For example, feeling sorry for Monica Lewinsky does not entail the wholesale purchase of every argument she makes in that Vanity Fair piece. There is something off about the way she compares herself to Tyler Clementi, who was the subject of a really casual and thoughtless sort of cruelty that is a hallmark of young existence. What happened to Lewinsky had nothing to do with anyone’s youth. Many of the people Lewinsky identifies as her tormentors, after all—Matt Drudge, Maureen Dowd, a group of distinguished women writers (and Katie Roiphe) that the New York Observer (!) cringingly described as “New York Supergals“—were grown adults. Professionals of a sort, people who had an idea of the power of their pens.
In her Vanity Fair article, Lewinsky says she shudders to think what her predicament would have been if social media and Internet news had existed back then with the velocity and ferocity of today. But she would have had one advantage: A less cramped feminist discourse, one that isn’t solely occupied by either leaders of organizations that wanted access to the White House or writers who were most interested in professing their own sexual liberation. The sphere of discourse on social media isn’t perfect, but it has made the conversation more cacophonous, more accountable, and populated it with more diverse voices than the mostly white, upper-middle-class Baby Boomer women who were called upon to speak for feminism then. And the contours of that discussion are less beholden than ever to platforms like Sunday morning news shows or New York Times op-ed pages.
Several years ago, Maya spent a good day reading all about the scandal, and it really was mind-blowing.