“Let’s not frame it by the woman + youngest, least powerful person involved,” Lewinsky wrote amid the current impeachment trial, prompting immediate apologies from some journalists.
Then came the haters. How about referring to “the consenting adult who knowingly seduced a married man?” one proposed. Another posted a cartoon sketch of a very recognizable Lewinsky, nearly naked. Another offered a Taylor Swift video GIF: “Oh there she goes, playing the victim … again.”
This is what it still is to be Monica Lewinsky in 2020.
The world’s most reviled intern, blamed for nearly bringing down a presidency with a beret and a blue dress, faces humiliation and ridicule every time she stands up against online humiliation and ridicule. Now 46, she has impressed many on social media with her wit, self-awareness, and canny ability to seize the opportunity of the #MeToo movement. Reporters and feminists who dismissed her in the 1990s as just another bimbo are newly cognizant that many other women have been branded as bimbos, attention-seekers, and liars to serve a predator’s purpose. They are looking at Lewinsky from a new sheepish perspective.
Yet to many Americans, Monica will always be Monica — someone whose narrative they helped write. She will never be viewed sympathetically by many who see her downfall as unforgivably consensual, a train wreck she gleefully engineered.
“Lewinsky is complicated because there’s not really public consensus on whether she’s a victim or an agent or some combination of the two,” said Nancy Whittier, a professor of sociology at Smith College whose studies include women’s movements, social change, and sexuality. “She has to walk a really fine line because she was a participant in this really politically charged moment, and she’s trying to talk about her own experience and cyberbullying in a way that isn’t politically aligned.”
After a decade of self-imposed exile and earning a master’s degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics, Lewinsky emerged six years ago as a social activist. She spoke at Forbes magazine’s 30 Under 30 Summit, wrote a Vanity Fair essay about her experience, and delivered a 2015 TED talk called “The Price of Shame,” in which she declared it was time to “take back my narrative.”
This wasn’t just about saving herself, she said. This was about all of us, the way we caricature and badmouth and bully one another online. Her talk addressed not just her own painful experience, but those of people like Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who killed himself in 2010 after his roommate secretly recorded and circulated video of him kissing another man.
Dubbing herself “Patient Zero” in a global epidemic of online shaming, Lewinsky began speaking for all those put in the virtual public stockade — and these days, that could be anyone, she made clear. You no longer need to have an affair with a president to warrant worldwide humiliation. You could make a stupid quip on Twitter.
“When this happened to me, 17 years ago, there was no name for it. Now we call it cyberbullying,” Lewinsky said in her TED talk.
That made Lewinsky’s irreplicable experience relatable, her willingness to speak out about it.
“Talking about the emotional effects of that experience, talking about how that affected her personally, is really pretty savvy,” said Whittier, noting that activists against domestic violence and rape have been most effective when focused on the personal impact.
Lewinsky also spearheaded public antibullying campaigns, including one that was nominated for an Emmy and a powerful new public service announcement — called “The Epidemic” — that forces viewers to confront the unseen impact of online bullying in real life.
And last week, she stepped into the partisan fray over President Trump’s impeachment trial, chiding Republican senators for their unwillingness to demand witnesses and noting that she’d been compelled to testify on video.
gee, too bad i had to give that videoed witness testimony for the senate trial in the clinton impeachment. (i mean, talk about unflattering lighting and having a bad hair day.)
— Monica Lewinsky (@MonicaLewinsky) January 31, 2020
Not everyone can hear that message from Lewinsky, though. A recent announcement that Lewinsky will be hosting “A Conversation on Shame and Survival” this spring at the New Bedford Lyceum, which markets itself as a community forum for open-minded intellectual debate, elicited online criticism that bordered on shaming.
“People feel quite strongly. Twenty years later to feel that strongly — I have to say, I’m a little surprised by that,” said Patti Rego, director of marketing and communications for the Marion Institute, one of the organizers.
She, too, was dismayed by the whole torrid affair in 1998, finding it “stupid,” she admits. And when she first heard that Lewsinsky was remaking herself as an activist, she thought, “Oh, Monica.”
But Rego was floored by Lewinsky’s TED talk and began reconsidering her own role in an early public shaming.
“We did her wrong. I did her wrong,” said Rego. “They’ve made rap songs about her. She’s almost like a verb.”
Organizers renamed the May 15 talk — “A Conversation with Monica Lewinsky on Cyberbullying and the Culture of Humiliation” — to “give people one more chance to put aside their preconceptions,” said Rego.
“She’s got a personal story and she’s using it to connect with people,” said Rego. “But she’s not asking us to forgive her. This is not the Monica Lewinsky apology tour.”
Lewinsky has already apologized for her affair, and she acknowledges regret in her talks. Clinton, who was impeached but not removed from office for perjuring himself by denying their affair in sworn testimony, has apologized publicly but not directly to Lewinsky.
He reportedly expresses more remorse about her treatment in the upcoming Hulu documentary, “Hillary,” which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival last month. “I feel terrible about the fact that Monica Lewinsky’s life was defined by it, unfairly I think,” Clinton is quoted as saying.
Hillary Clinton was also further defined by the episode, faulted for demonizing another woman and enabling her husband, who had been accused of seducing, harassing, and even raping women over the years. In the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump brought those accusers to face Hillary Clinton at a televised debate. In the #MeToo era, Democrats and feminists have been reexamining their willingness to discount the testimony of women who accused a man they wanted to believe in.
In 1998, even feminist icon Gloria Steinem stuck up for Clinton, writing a controversial New York Times op-ed that argued some of his alleged passes at women didn’t constitute harassment and that distinguished his relationship with Lewinsky as consensual.
In hindsight, even Steinem has high praise for Lewinsky. “How she has endured her unfair treatment is incredible to me,” Steinem told the Globe last week. “And she has emerged smart and wise and kind and sane.”
For her second act, Lewinsky is holding herself out as a symbol of resilience, telling other bullying survivors, “You can insist on a different ending to your story.”
It’s a very American construct. But families and cultures also play a role in shaping and reinforcing personal narratives, noted Kate McLean, a Western Washington University professor who studies them.
“We don’t get to only tell our own stories,” McLean said. “You can’t say, ‘Here’s who I am now,’ if no one believes you. Self and identity change is dependent upon the person wanting to change and other people hearing the new story.”
Stephanie Ebbert can be reached at Stephanie.Ebbert@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @StephanieEbbert