As a teacher, I realise quite often that my students seem to forget that I’m a real human being with a life (side note: there’s a great comment on this in Matilda by Roald Dahl). I reckon the same thing happens with celebrities. Or, in this case, the unintentionally famous (infamous?). I can’t imagine what it must have been like for a 24 year old to suddenly be thrust into the global spotlight, becoming a punchline and “That Woman” and a reason for impeachment, and quite honestly, I’d never really thought about it until I recently read Monica Lewinsky’s essay Shame and Scandal (a modified version of part of her upcoming book) in the June 2014 edition of Vanity Fair.
In the essay, she mentions trying to get a job, dating, her choice to lie very low, and how it felt to be on the receiving end of many horrible statements about her – from her looks to her intelligence (she was once called a “portly pepperpot”). Q. What is Lewinsky’s code name in the FBI? A. Deep Throat. Just Google ‘Monica Lewinsky jokes’ – there are lists of them. I’m pretty sure I made my own “blue dress” jokes back in the day, and I know I’ve heard references to the scandal on anything from Whose Line Is It to the Beyonce song Partition (Lewinsky, rather impressively and self-effacingly corrects the lyrics in her essay).
Now, the essay does in many ways gloss over her years as a Jenny Craig spokesperson, various reality TV roles, and a failed line of hand bags bearing her name (even here, I’m tempted to make a joke about her rather having gone for a dress and beret line…) and how that smacks of trying to cash in, but she was undeniably and irrevocably affected by the scandal – to the point perhaps of being bullied or ‘slut shamed’. When I first read the essay, I really was sympathetic. After doing some research on her background and history, I’m a little less so (and I realise this will always be a case of he said/she said so who knows what to believe?). However, to be embroiled in a trial against the President of the USA, being shifted from the White House to the Pentagon by the powers that be, and at such a relatively young age… it must have been quite terrifying. And just trying to imagine what life must be like after something like that is impossible. Do you change your name? Move around (like she has)?
The Clintons enjoy prestige, power, and the occasional SNL lampooning. Hilary doesn’t seem to have received much flak for standing by her man (though I seem to recall she did at the time – there were also jokes about the ball busting Bill was likely enduring as punishment). Lewinsky has endured a lot more. Yes, it was (as she emphasises) consensual. Yes, she did have a previous relationship/affair with an older married man. I don’t believe she was sexually innocent or inexperienced or was co-erced into the relationship. She wasn’t under age or unable to understand what was happening. But I think the issue is more how, as a young woman, she was treated by… everyone.
You could argue that it was pretty weird and perhaps convenient for her to keep a semen-stained dress (she said it was under the advice of Linda Tripp – but one wonders how often in a “normal” relationship women store semen-stained outfits – just in case?). But I think of myself at 24. How on earth (assuming I’d landed myself in such a position, shall we say?) would I have coped? If someone that I regarded as a friend, and who was a pretty powerful woman in what is arguably still a man’s world, I’d probably also listen to her advice. And I’d probably not think to wonder if that friend was tapping my phones and recording my conversations with her.
As much as the scandal ended Clinton’s presidency, he hasn’t exactly sunk into shame and obscurity. He hasn’t had to take a job as a saxaphone player or cigar salesperson (see what I did there?). Yes, he lost his licence to practice law – but only for five years, and as much as it would be impossible for him to run for public office, and he lost a lot of face, he certainly hasn’t lost his career. He continues to speak at events, promote causes, and be a respected public figure. It really got me thinking for the first time about the kind of power dynamics at play in the whole affair.
Would the results have been the same if the gender roles were reversed? Watching the scandal unfold, I remember being struck by how Clinton came off more as a naughty school boy with his hand caught in the proverbial, uh, cookie jar. He played games with semantics and the truth but still came across as affable, misguided, and “aw shucks guys” with his hands twisting behind his back, scuffing his shoes in the dirt. I remember Lewinsky being criticised as being stupid and ugly and attention seeking and seeing unflattering pics of her on TV. Because it really was all about looks and intelligence…
In her essay, Lewinsky transcribes a conversation of some leading feminist minds discussing the issue, and the result is not a pretty picture. I don’t think anyone needed to necessarily rush to her defense, but at the same time, some compassion may have been nice. I do think there was a lot of bullying going on and a lot of forgetting that there was a human being on the receiving end. Cynics may say that her money has maybe run out again (she discusses the challenges of trying to find a job and people’s reluctance to be associated with her as an employee) and that’s why she’s resurfaced, but she claims her motivation is more altruistic – she wants to speak up about her experiences in the hopes that it may help other victims of bullying. And personally I think that’s a great idea. If someone can learn from her mistakes, all the better.
We certainly live in a different world now (imagine how much worse it would’ve been in today’s technological age!), and I like to think that for someone in the same position today, there’d be more support and more opportunity to tell the other side of the story – though I’m not sure that would really be the case. It’s certainly not a pretty place to be and trying to pick up the pieces must be hard enough without people making jokes and “slut shaming”.
So, in the wake of such a scandal and after giving some thought to the ramifications for all involved, we have to ask ourselves as consumers of media, who really blew it?