Monica Lewinsky
Monica Lewinsky (Photo: Getty)

OPINION

20 years on, Monica Lewinsky has much to teach us about slut-shaming

Having endured an international public humiliation, Lewinsky can understand the performative misogyny of the internet better than most

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By Kat Lister on

If there’s one name I was surprised to see trending on social media this morning it was Monica Lewinsky’s – a name so synonymous with the 1990s it’s filed deep in my brain alongside miscellaneous memories of New Labour, MC Hammer’s harem pants, intergalactic Pop-Tarts and my Blockbuster membership card. Why is she back after all this time – and what does she have to tell us in 2017? Post-Weinstein, arguably a great deal.

I was 14 years old when a stained blue Gap dress became front-page news and nearly toppled a President. Old enough, perhaps, to be acquainted with the dictionary definition of the term “fellatio”, but not quite mature enough to understand the political ramifications of such an act. It would be many more years before I would realise that Monica Lewinsky’s story isn’t simply her burden, it’s a shared narrative that raises profound questions about how we scrutinise gender, politics and power. The Clinton scandal – and the media circus that encompassed it – had something timeless to say about the ways in which we undermine, belittle and bully the women who speak out. Two decades later, it still does. I’m now 34 years old – and the sniggers still trail Lewinsky like some kind of prized prey.

In a new interview with the Evening Standard, the former White House intern has been speaking out about her treatment – nearly 20 years after the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship broke in January 1998 – describing public shaming as “a blood sport”. Ever since her now-infamous belted shirt-dress was paraded in front of baying reporters and flashing camera lenses, “shame” has followed Lewinsky wherever she goes, raising powerful questions about who we forgive when power is abused – and who we punish. Perhaps the biggest takeaway from Rosamund Urwin’s interview is that Lewinsky’s past is very much still her present. And it still hurts.

For those who need reminding, Lewinsky was only 22 years old when she met her 49 year old President (let that sink in: it’s a small detail we like to ignore). The young intern stated that between 1995 and 1997 she had nine sexual encounters in the Oval Office. A co-worker persuaded Lewinsky not to dry clean a blue dress stained with the President’s semen – and this one item of clothing soon rocked the White House. Under Oath, Clinton denied any wrongdoing (who could forget his memorable dismissal, “I did not have sexual relations with that woman”?) The media-scrum that followed ripped Lewinsky’s reputation to shreds and left her with deep scars that, though faded now, are still very much there. Clinton, on the other hand? In a predictable twist, he weathered the storm and eventually reinvented himself through the professional ascendency of his wife, Hillary, as dutiful husband and advisor. We watched him stand on a Democratic convention stage in 2016 and fable both his relationship with his wife – and his past. Two birds, you might say, one stone.  “Bill Clinton’s speech made Hillary human again,” Jill Abramson wrote for the Guardian in the days that followed. Lewinsky is still fighting for that privilege.

In a predictable twist, Clinton weathered the storm and eventually reinvented himself through the professional ascendency of his wife, Hillary, as dutiful husband and advisor

Twenty years after she was weaponised by Washington power players, Monica Lewinsky is still asking to be heard. This time, she’s not alone – and her plea takes on new meaning in the wake of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes and the repeated cries of #MeToo. When she speaks of the slut-shaming she’s had to endure over the years, I’m reminded of the same slut-shaming that hounded actress Asia Argento into exile only a few weeks ago. Argento was one of the first women to speak out against Weinstein and was victim-shamed in her native Italy as a result. The bullying hasn’t shut her up – nor has it succeeded in shaming Lewinsky into submission despite the taunts and jeers. Like Argento, Lewinsky is a trailblazer, too. The 44 year old refers to herself as “patient zero” – a woman who went “from being a private person to a globally known, publicly humiliated, losing-my-digital-reputation [person]” in a matter of days. In spite of Twitter trolls who still drag her through the mud, she’s blueprinted a path for others who now follow her across trip-wired terrain.

Lewinsky’s 1990s fat-shamers (she recalls how in 1999, in one of her first interviews, a reporter wrote “Lewinsky lumbers into the room like an elephant”) may pre-date our current social media age, but her experience of abuse has much to tell us about the ways in which trolls target women today. Social media has become, according to Lewinsky, the digital equivalent of the Roman coliseum. “When we wrap fear around difference, that’s what creates the chasm between [people],” she told the Evening Standard. “We’re living at a time when we see the best of people and the worst of people.” 

Monica Lewinsky might be back, but in some ways, she never really went away. It’s just that we’re finally listening. Which is why Lewinsky has bravely stepped back into the ring in order to tackle bullying in all its varying forms, both online and off. Her focus, the interview reveals, is on victims (“because that’s what I feel most connected to”) and a “digital reslience” that she’d like us all to build up like a muscle. “It’s almost like wearing a seatbelt,” she told the Evening Standard. “It’s not because you know you’ll get into an accident now, but because there’s a high likelihood you could one day. More and more people will find themselves publicly shamed.”

As the US writer Sady Doyle wrote on Twitter last night, “In a perfect world, we'd have been talking about how scummy Bill Clinton was to Monica Lewinsky forever.”  In the real world, we’re only just approaching that conversation now – tentatively but with increasing urgency as Hollywood unravels. Type “Bill Clinton” into Google search and the headlines finally flip the narrative. “What about Bill?” the New York Times asks the world.

Nearly 20 years after Monica Lewinsky was shamed in the most public of ways, her story is finally being told – in her own time, on her own terms. In her own words.

@Madame_George

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Monica Lewinsky (Photo: Getty)
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women in politics
Sexism
sexual harassment

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