I saw HBO’s 2002 documentary on Monica Lewinsky, Monica In Black and White, not too long ago. I wanted to understand her. I’m in a different place in my life now. Was she, as I thought at the time, a seductress, a home wrecker, or was she, as I thought now, a victim of male dominance and power? The truth is simpler and far less sinister.
Monica fell in love. She doesn’t see herself as a victim. She was a woman who reached for what she wanted and got it. “I have a crush on you,” she said to him that snowy day when the building was nearly empty. He took her into his office and the two of them passed the time.
Following the Ken Starr witch trials, she went on to give interviews and pose, scantily clad, in every major fashion magazine, which seemed unseemly to a world working so hard to shame her. How dare she. Show some regret, woman. Who do you think you are? You’re not above our wrath. And she wasn’t. Because we won. After that she tried to live a normal life. But the joke’s on her.
What do you mean you’re not going to give us sex, Monica? You have no purpose.
She received her Master’s at the London School of Economics, but when she returned home, she couldn’t get a job, even as a volunteer. Some hiring managers went so far as to interview her just to see what she was like.
She’s the circus freak. The Bearded Lady. All because she had sexual relations with the most powerful man on the planet, who unceremoniously dumped her, because for all of his power, he was as much a coward about ending things as any man.
My journalism instructor, once the AP Entertainment reporter, said he’d been one of the army of journalists camped outside her Beverly Hills home. I shared this piece from the Guardian. Monica has put her life together and, as the first cyber-shamed person in the world, uses her story as a spring board for an anti-bullying campaign. Her talks have put her in front of audiences on the Ted stage and at Facebook headquarters. They’re taught in schools alongside Harriet Tubman. She has created an anti-bullying app. It’s a hug. Two arms wrapped around a shaking heart. She hopes to spread empathy, and, to save kids from suicide.
In his email my professor wrote back, “None of us really thought of her or what she was going through. I’m sorry about that now.”
Nobody wants to think about her, but it’s a problem for us. Monica may not have been Bill’s victim, but she’s ours. We shamed her. We scarlet letter A’d her. She should be part of the national conversation about slut shaming, but she’s not even a footnote. We’d have to admit we were wrong. And we’d all, especially those of us on the Left, prefer to think of ourselves as better than that. Right about now, we should be asking her for forgiveness.
She’d give it. One gets the sense that she’s generous and loving.
Nevertheless, Monica’s 22-year-old specter lingers over Hillary and Bill, perhaps not directly, and not for everyone, but for those of us who lived through it. Ken Starr ripped a hole in the nation’s fabric, and sealed a Monica, Hillary, Bill-shaped scar there. Can’t you see it? There, just out of the corner of your eye. Yeah, when you’re least expecting it, her image flits across your awareness. You wonder, what happened there? What really happened? Did Hillary really forgive Bill? Did she know about all of his indiscretions? Why did she really stay with him?
Inquiring feminists want to know.
Monica was a child. Hillary was a wife and mother. Bill was the leader of the free world. I imagine he did it because he could. Monica did it because who wouldn’t? Hillary stayed, perhaps, to heal the country.
And we? We’re the real villains here. Our drive empowered Ken Starr and created a media landscape that would go on to look more like the Enquirer in twenty years, partisan, salacious, vicious and grievance driven.
We slut shame. We call one another bitches and cunts. And when a guy says, “You’re too needy,” or after sleeping with you, “I’m not looking for a relationship right now,” or goes missing for days or weeks at a time, it’s fine. His momentary needs matter more. Even if they outweigh the needs of the entire country.
In spite of us Hillary has shaken off the filth of those days and remade herself. But, as Obama’s presidency blasted a klieg light onto the rabid racism that still seethes in the dark places of our continent, we’ve only just begun to see the effect a woman president will have on the culture. It will divide us and hurt us while lifting us to new grounds of strength and hope. She will show how we are strong, while we reveal how we are foul.
And Monica? Her narrative is tied to Hillary’s as well. She’s a model for 21st Century strength in different ways. She survived the burning at the stake.
I’m not sure what’s in store for us. We are the mob. We destroy with impunity. It just feels good. Perhaps I’m just being pessimistic. If we can elect a black men, and now a white woman, perhaps there’s hope for us still. I’m just not sure.