The slut-shaming of Monica Lewinsky
By Jess McHugh
Blame our Puritan-American traditions or our high hopes for Clinton’s presidency, but when I heard that Monica Lewinsky had written a feature article for Vanity Fair about her life since the 1998 scandal, I am not proud to admit my first thought was: “You made your bed (with the President); now you have to lie in it.” There’s no denying that self- proclaimed feminists both then and now did nothing to hear Lewinsky’s side of the story, much less rally around her. Furthermore, though the piece made a splash when it was first published in May, it seems to have done little to change the effectiveness of Hillary Clinton’s book tour or the sexualized political discourse of the upcoming elections. These questions, therefore, concern not only the extent to which the American public effectively “slut-shamed” Monica Lewinsky, but how this mentality underlies a culture in which the rich and powerful boys will be boys, and women will be, well — “sluts.”
When the scandal broke, Ms. Lewinsky was almost unanimously thrown to the dogs by both Democrats and Republicans alike (the joy of scapegoating a 24 year-old woman is the honourable stuff that inspires politicians to cross the aisle…). In any event, the discussion here does not concern what went on between President Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky in the Oval Office, nor any moral/religious judgement of their actions, but rather what has gone on since, especially in the immediate blow-back during the late 90’s.
The reigning opinion seems to be, especially for well-liked philandering politicians such as Bill Clinton, that “boys will be boys.” We might not approve of a politician’s affairs, but we have come to expect them, and in many cases to dismiss them with the next news cycle. Where this affair is no more than a chapter, albeit a dark one, in Clinton’s political career, it has defined Lewinsky, making her little more than the caricature of a sexual temptress.
This caricaturisation is due in large part to the media and public reaction at the time, which was more concerned with unearthing salacious details than anything else. Maureen Dowd, who was at first somewhat sympathetic to Lewinsky, quickly focused her New York Times column on bimbo-bashing — what some might call and early precursor to slut-shaming— eventually winning a Pulitzer Prize for a series of articles in which she called Lewinsky a chubby “Valley Girl.”
One of the most interesting and strangest pieces of commentary that came out about the Lewinsky-Clinton affair was one which received far less public attention than Dowd’s column — an article by novelist, journalist, and translator Francine Prose for the New York Observer entitled “New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez.” The “Supergals” in question are Erica Jong, Marisa Bowe, and Nancy Friday, to name a few, and back in 1998 they came together to discuss the Monica-Bill story over cocktails in Manhattan, á la Sex and the City. Prose’s article, which includes many verbatim dialogues between these well-educated, well-read women, reaches the general conclusion that they’d rather have a “boyish chief executive who’s alive below the waist”, even if that means a certain degree of scandal. And Monica? Ms. Lewinsky may as well, as Nancy Friday put it, “rent out her mouth”.
The backlash from feminists and female public figures alike is surprising, though perhaps less so given the backdrop of what some would call third-wave feminism in the 90’s. According to the US Census, American women made up almost half of the nationwide workforce (if you include part-time labour) by the mid 90’s, and this new-found independence went hand in hand with a sexual independence, especially for women living in large cities. The 90’s presented a new time for women, where they were more accepted in the workplace and could have a romantic life as well — the bra-burning ideology of Second Wave feminism was long over, and with it a well-defined idea of what a successful, respected woman looked like. This sexually-liberated, financially-independent mentality is personified in the HBO series Sex and the City, which first aired in 1998, the year the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke. Sex and the City was representative of a cultural phenomenon familiar to this type of cosmopolitan woman, a “Supergal,” if you will.
As Katie Roiphe observed during this Supergal cocktail hour: “I think what people are outraged about is the way that [Monica Lewinsky] looks, which is interesting. Because we like to think of our Presidents as sort of godlike, and so if J.F.K. has an affair with Marilyn Monroe, it’s all in the realm of the demigods… I mean, the thing I kept hearing over and over again was Monica Lewinsky’s not that pretty.” If Monica had looked the part would she have been more respected? I somehow doubt it. If, however, she had had the kind of political clout of someone such as Maureen Dowd or Linda Tripp even, it’s possible that the discussion would have gone a very different way. What it comes down to is power, while acknowledging that that power cannot be separated from gender politics.
Though Time Magazine’s Jessica Bennett argues that times have changed, particularly that the media response to cases involving explicit sex and humiliation would be different today, such a claim is very difficult to support. Only one year ago, a case involving a very young woman, sex, and internet humiliation made the rounds on the mainstream media circuit. This case, which had little of the moral and political gray area and all of the unjust slut-shaming, was the Steubenville rape case in which an unconscious high school girl was raped by two classmates, one of whom then posted the pictures of the rape online. And yet the media focus from most major outlets was on the rapists, whose young lives were ruined by their heinous crime. Once again, both of the young men involved were “good ol’ boys,” painted as hometown heroes — football stars with good grades who were somehow being victimized by the system. Meanwhile the victim, a relative nobody, could not find a champion in her immediate community or amongst the nation’s leading journalists and anchors.
The criticisms of social media bullying, made by everyone from sociologists and psychologists to concerned moms, are a stale but true aspect of the Lewinsky question. In a recent Wall Street Journal article on America’s culture of humiliation, crisis consultant Jonathan Bernstein was quoted as saying: “There have always been people whose aim in life was to cause pain to others… Before the Internet, they had to gossip with their neighbours. Now they can gossip with the world.” But as we’ve seen in the case of Monica Lewinsky, there’s something different about the ways in which that idea is acted out regarding women. Perhaps because some part of the collective American conscience continues to criticize women mercilessly for their sexual choices, anything that could be perceived as a sexual choice is put under a microscope.
Consequently, where Lewinsky was berated for her romantic choice, Hillary Clinton was lauded for hers: sticking by Bill. The Monica Lewinsky story has been made more timely by the VF article and by Hillary Clinton’s potential 2016 run for presidency. Still, like Bill, Hillary far outranks Lewinsky and as some suggest, could even use her image as the betrayed but faithful wife to her advantage if she does choose to run in 2016. Lewinsky, however, will have little hope of a career, or even of being an agent in the Clinton political landscape. What made her story singular was the extreme disparity in power as well as the public nature of the players involved, though lesser versions of this kind of drama will continue to play out. Just as there was Monica in her blue dress in 1998, there will be many more women humiliated in the public eye by those in positions of power.
Jess McHugh is a Contributing Editor to the Articles section and a senior at Yale College.