Monica Lewinsky may have hoped to raise questions about gender, power and public humiliation in the Internet age, but the response to her 4,000-word essay in Vanity Fair has repeated many of the patterns she sought to challenge.
Lewinsky became an American icon in 1998 following revelations that, as a 22-year-old White House intern, she had been embroiled in a torrid affair with then-President Bill Clinton that prompted congressional impeachment proceedings.
“It’s time to burn the beret and bury the blue dress,” she wrote, referring to items from her wardrobe made famous by the saturation media coverage and salacious detail of the Starr Report. “I, myself, deeply regret what happened between me and President Clinton. Let me say it again: I. Myself. Deeply. Regret. What. Happened.”
She was motivated to speak out, she said, by the 2010 suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi, 18, whose roommate had surreptitiously videotaped him kissing another man and broadcast it online.
“Having lived in humiliation in the most intimate possible way, I marvel at how willingly we have all signed on to this new way of being,” Lewinsky wrote, based on her own experiences as “possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.” (News of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was first broken by the Drudge Report, a conservative website.)
But a central theme of Lewinsky's essay is her observation that “with every marital indiscretion that finds its way into the public sphere — many of which involve male politicians — it always seems like the woman conveniently takes the fall.”
Clinton has certainly been rehabilitated in public life as a political "rock star" and kingmaker in the Democratic Party, while Lewinsky has been unable to escape from the shadow of the scandal that made her a household name. And the reactions to her re-emergence this week to challenge her treatment in the court of public opinion echoed the tone of 1998, focusing on Lewinsky's appearance and accusing her of seeking fame and fortune — but largely ignoring questions her story raises about Clinton's behavior, and about the media's response to the scandal.
The Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus chided Lewinsky for her reclined pose in the Vanity Fair photo spread, and for wearing a dress that’s “tight, straining at the chest.”
“If I were Monica’s friend — or her mother — I would never have allowed it,” Marcus said, going on to denigrate her for “displaying her sexuality,” just as Marcus said Lewinsky had done in 1998 in a display of “cunning and manipulation.”
The Los Angeles Times’ Robin Abcarian snipped sarcastically that “Lewinsky has decided it’s time to go public again, because, you know, it’s not that a Clinton is running for president, it’s just that she’s feeling stifled.”
Much of the coverage of the scandal in 1998 had also effectively vilified Lewinsky, as if the lowly White House intern had been responsible for the behavior and choices of the world's most powerful man.
New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd won a Pulitzer Prize by following the Monica Lewinsky scandal week after week, initially taking a sympathetic tone, but turning catty in the subsequent months, calling Lewinsky “the girl who was too tubby to be in the high school ‘in’ crowd,” and “the red-blooded predator.”
Even Susan Faludi, the prominent feminist and author of the book “Backlash: The Undeclared War Against American Women,” in 1998 blamed Lewinsky, not Clinton, for the affair.
“If anything,” Faludi was quoted as saying, “it sounds like she put the moves on him,” taking no account of the massive imbalance of power between Lewinsky and a man old enough to be her father, who also happened to be her boss and the president of the United States — and appearing to avoid holding him accountable for his actions.
Today Lewinsky is 40 years old, Slate’s Amanda Hess noted, “but she’s been allowed just one career track — disgraced former mistress — and now we’re dinging her for attempting to make a living from it.”
‘Blame the victim 2.0’
The Clinton-Lewinsky saga was hardly the first — or last — in which women have suffered more enduring humiliation in the public eye than have the powerful men with whom they were involved.
Alison Dagnes, a political science professor at Shippensburg University in Pennsylvania and the author of “Sex Scandals in American Politics,” said women in sex scandals fare worse than the men due to the imbalanced power dynamic in which the woman is the male politician’s subordinate.
She said sex scandals also feed into stereotypes about sexuality and male-female relationships.
“As people look to the wife as the wronged woman, there has to be a ‘wronger’ woman who did it,” Dagnes told Al Jazeera. “And so that puts the woman into another kind of subordinate position, that she led to the betrayal of the wife, that she led to someone else’s harming even though it was the man who did it.”
Indeed, Lewinsky recently discovered that even Hillary Clinton blamed her for her husband’s indiscretions. “Mrs. Clinton, I read, had supposedly confided to [friend Diane Blair] that, in part, she blamed herself for her husband’s affair (by being emotionally neglectful) and seemed to forgive him,” Lewinsky wrote in Vanity Fair. “She may have faulted her husband for being inappropriate, but I find her impulse to blame the Woman — not only me, but herself — troubling.”
Now, not only are they sluts, but they’re media whores. Exposure becomes a time to indict the indecent exposure of the woman.
gender studies professor, UCLA
Dagnes added that at that time, women who supported the Democratic Party hadn’t wanted to believe that Bill Clinton — known for his pro-woman stances and his smart, accomplished wife — would have done this. Therefore, slut-shaming Lewinsky made more sense because “people really didn’t want to believe he was a predator,” she said. “Clearly, it has to be her fault, because this guy couldn’t have done it on his own.”
But today, nearly two decades later, why does it feel as if not much has changed?
“In a certain sense, we are living through a period of blame the victim 2.0,” said Juliet Williams, a gender studies professor and an associate dean of social sciences at UCLA and co-editor of the book “Public Affairs: Politics in the Age of Sex Scandals.”
“It’s always been the case that the women who get caught up in these scandalous revelations are portrayed as harlots and marriage wreckers and sexually loose," she told Al Jazeera. "Now very often that charge is accompanied by a depiction of not just sluts in a traditional sense, but as media whores.”
She said this damning of women for supposedly wanting publicity also happened to Ginger White, the woman who came forward about her affair with presidential candidate Herman Cain, and with the women who alleged they were sexually harassed by the mayor of San Diego.
“Now, not only are they sluts, but they’re media whores,” Williams said. “Exposure becomes a time to indict the indecent exposure of the woman.”
Williams was quick to add that she does not believe Clinton “got away with it” scot-free.
But she does believe that this tide could be turning, particularly in the case of someone like disgraced Rep. Anthony Weiner, who was largely ridiculed about his salacious Twitter exchanges with multiple women. Arguably, he was the one who got slut-shamed.
“Slut-shaming remains a fixed feature, but the terms of it change,” Williams said.
For example, a century ago, losing one’s virginity was the ultimate scandal, but now it centers on what Williams calls “women’s sexual agency” — why they chose to get drunk at a party during which they were sexually assaulted, or why they came forward to the media with their stories about affairs or rape.
“We still definitely have women who are sexual get denigrated socially. And that has been and remains frustratingly the same,” she said, adding, “Sexism is still very adaptive. It’s updated. It’s 2.0.”