It’s been 20 years since a little blue dress rocked the White House; a dress that – infamously stained with presidential semen – consumed the woman who wore it, destroyed her reputation and erased her name.
“I was branded a tramp, a tart, a slut, a bimbo, a floozy and, of course, 'that woman’,” Monica Lewinsky said, during a public ticketed talk in Utah this week. In the weeks that followed revelations of a sexual affair between the 22-year-old intern and her 49-year-old president, Lewinsky became a cheap object of ridicule or a powerful instrument for presidential change, depending on your politics. In 1998, very few of us stepped out from the tabloid feeding frenzy and considered the young subordinate’s point of view – the “floozy” behind the scandal. To quote the then-president, she was simply “that woman” – no more, no less. Her story was hijacked from the outset and she was slut-shamed out of Washington.
Faced with the same blue dress now, would we respond any differently? Post-Weinstein – and as #MeToo discussions continue to shine a new searchlight on past abuses – it’s a question being asked and debated. Last night, New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor took to Twitter and literally posed this very question to her 63,000 followers. “This week is the 20th anniversary of the Bill Clinton scandal, formerly known as the Monica Lewinsky scandal,” she tweeted. “How does that feel to you, given what's going on right now?”
The response was illuminating – and it has much to tell us about where we currently find ourselves in 2018. “Most millennial women I know regard @MonicaLewinsky as a feminist hero,” Eve Peyser, a political writer for VICE, replied. “I’m still upset by how baby boomer and gen-x ‘feminists’ slut-shamed and bullied her 20 years ago.” Another agreed wholeheartedly: “That scandal brainwashed my generation for years into thinking it was OK to make fun of the victim ruthlessly. We had girl power, but only for the ‘good’ ones.”
Two decades after Monica Lewinsky was jeered, fat-shamed, belittled, bullied and ridiculed, a younger generation of women are claiming her as their own
Amidst the echoes of #MeToo, a new debate about a decades-old story is placing Monica Lewinsky on the fault lines once again. Public opinion is at a crossroads and current attitudes are in a state of flux, metamorphosing in real time – on Twitter. Mere months after Harvey Weinstein’s beastly behaviour was finally outed, the ties that previously bound sex, gender and power so inextricably together have been exposed. But they haven’t been severed – at least, not yet. As a result, a historical revisionism is taking place: past wrongs are now being re-examined and a former “tramp” is being crowned a feminist “hero” by many. Two decades after Monica Lewinsky was jeered, fat-shamed, belittled, bullied and ridiculed, a younger generation of women are claiming her as their own – women like Rose McGowan, one of the first women to claim that she was raped and abused by Harvey Weinstein.
“What we owe Monica Lewinsky is historical and vast,” McGowan tweeted this week. “Globally slut shamed by the world. Dems & Reps attacked her because a President abused his power. Get real people, see truth. She was a kid. Biggest power imbalance ever. THE SCARLET LETTER IS HIS.”
However, not everyone is convinced – which is where the faultline occurs. For every woman tweeting that Lewinsky is a hero, three more strenuously disagree. “This is what I don't get. A hero for what?” one woman tweeted back in response to Eve Peyser and her revisionist narrative. She wasn’t alone. “How is she a hero?” another asked. “I'm a few years younger than her. I felt bad for how harsh the press was towards her, but she was an adult who knowingly had a consensual affair with a married man. She didn't deserve the avalanche of criticism, but she's not a hero.”
These comments immediately reminded me of a feature I recently wrote with the headline, “20 years on, Monica Lewinsky has much to teach us about slut-shaming”. Along with the cheers of agreement were many more complaints from those who still consider the former intern to be manipulative and untrustworthy – a homewrecker, not a hero. “Was she sexually assaulted?” asked one reader – and this is a key component to their rebuffle. Post-Weinstein, many cannot marry Lewinsky’s reinvention with a movement that seeks to out systemic rape and abuse. Only, this analysis misses something vital. This isn’t actually about sex at all – it never was. It’s always been about power.
The Clinton-Lewinsky affair was consensual, but it wasn’t equal. Those nine sexual encounters, between a middle-aged president and an intern 27 years his junior, within the walls of the White House weren’t simply an affair. They were an abuse of power at the highest level. When we talk about Monica Lewinsky in light of the #MeToo conversation, this is what we mean – and this is why we’re retracing old ground. We’re finally listening.
Two decades later, it’s about time.