Share every sharing choices for: Every variation of the Monica Lewinsky story reveals America’s failure of empathy

In the Purity Chronicles, looks ago at the sexual and gendered mores the the late ’90s and 2000s, one pop society phenomenon at a time. Read more here.

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All famous women space symbols of miscellaneous in American pop culture. However Monica Lewinsky is singular for being, amongst other things, a prize of a symbol.

When the story broke in 1998 the President bill Clinton had carried out an affair with young previous White residence intern Monica Lewinsky, the media eagerly prepared to make Lewinsky the challenge of the scandal. In newspapers and also on cable news and also talk shows she became, variously, a slut, an innocent victim, a liberated woman, someone sexy, someone fat, who feminine, who unwomanly. Her name ended up being synonymous with a sex act. She humiliation came to be a national spectacle.

“I became a social representation,” Lewinsky would later write for Vanity Fair, “a society canvas on i beg your pardon anybody might project their confusion around women, sex, infidelity, politics, and also body issues.”

With the essay, Lewinsky likewise became among the first people to aid construct the frame for our current reevaluation that the mores the the ’90s and also 2000s. In 2014, she reemerged into public see as one anti-bullying advocate, very first with a well-received TED talk and also then with the Vanity same article, in both, asking the country to reconsider its eagerness to shame her.

In the general public eye, Lewinsky wrote, she had become, “America’s B.J. Queen. The Intern. That Vixen. Or, in the inevitable phrase of our 42nd president, ‘That Woman.’” But, she added, “It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a person.”

Many reacted through a surprising amount that remorse. “I started to feel bad,” David Letterman said on the wait after he check out Lewinsky’s Vanity fair article. “Because myself and other people with shows like this made relentless jokes around the negative woman. And she to be a kid, she to be 21, 22. … ns feel bad around my role in helping press the humiliation to the suggest of suffocation.”

Lewinsky had actually made a mistake, the consensus came to be, but that to be no excuse for the means the people humiliated her. World should be permitted to do mistakes once they’re 22 without becoming the thing of vicious scorn the way she did.

As the Me Too movement took off in 2017, the Monica Lewinsky story developed once again, and Lewinsky came to be a price of how liberals obtained feminism not correct in 1998. The brand-new line of thinking was that obligation for the mistake had actually rested v Bill Clinton every along. He was the one who had all the strength in his partnership with Lewinsky. He to be the leader the the totally free world, and also she was a 22-year-old intern. He to be the one who had a responsibility not to go after a connection with her. The truth that that did anyway to be an abuse the his power.

“Fifty-something leaders of establishments shouldn’t be transferring on affairs with interns who occupational for them,” composed Matthew Yglesias for in 2017, “regardless of whether the affair is in some sense consensual.” Clinton, Yglesias argued, should have resigned.

Part the this much more recent agreement is the idea the liberals and feminists got it wrong back in 1998 by rallying behind Clinton rather of publicly sustaining Lewinsky, the they concentrated all their fist on the reality that Lewinsky said the affair to be consensual fairly than top top the huge power disparity in between Clinton and Lewinsky. Back then, us didn’t yes, really understand around power and consent, however now us do, due to the fact that as a culture we have obtained better. That has pertained to be the new conventional wisdom about the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal.

However, if us revisit the reactions people had come Monica Lewinsky in 1998, the becomes clean that couple of were in reality ignoring that power disparity back then. The was main to the story gift told around Monica Lewinsky, though the associations it brought were far different from those it carries today.

“Readers the Kenneth Starr’s report,” the Washington article opined in September 1998, shortly after independent counsel Ken Starr exit the well known details the his investigation into Clinton, “imagine her as the star of one of two people ‘Fatal Attraction’ or ‘Seduced and also Abandoned’ — or ‘Dumb and also Dumber.’” Starr’s 453-page report got in explicit detail around the sexual relationship in between Clinton and also Lewinsky in a “blow-by-blow account,” as contemporary commenters were prone to note with a chuckle. And the article was exactly in its review of the Starr report’s reception: Those movie narratives to be the dominant reads playing throughout America at the time.

But nevertheless of even if it is you’re reading her as the star the Fatal Attraction, Seduced and also Abandoned, or Dumb and also Dumber, it’s evident Lewinsky isn’t a wicked and an effective seductress. She very plainly the one with no power. That’s component of what make the story for this reason salacious, follow to the mores the the time, and also Lewinsky’s humiliation therefore delicious as well.

From the vantage suggest of 2021, Lewinsky’s comparative powerlessness renders her a clear victim in Interngate — mostly. In contrast, the media narratives that the so late ’90s, both feminist and also anti-feminist, analyzed Lewinsky’s compare powerlessness into an ever-shifting status of submissive slut, innocent victim, liberated woman, and also unwomanly shrew.

As us track the method those narratives played out in the press throughout the late ’90s, we deserve to see the way our society has evolved since 1998. Those changed, however, is no that we’ve all emerged a better understanding of exactly how to review shifting power dynamics; instead, we’ve honed our ability to review the sadism and the misogyny the our first impulsive reaction to those dynamics.

Here’s just how the public in 1998 understood the truth of Monica Lewinsky’s powerlessness — and how those interpretations proceed to operate subliminally in the ways we talk around Lewinsky today.

Jay Leno sitting before a snapshot of Monica Lewinsky ~ above The tonight Show, July 24, 1998. Margaret Norton/NBCU photograph Bank/NBCUniversal via Getty photos

Narrative 1: Lewinsky to be the one with no power, i m sorry made her a stupid, submissive slut unworthy that respect

The right-leaning Drudge Report was the outlet that damaged the story that the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. And also its founder, Matt Drudge, had actually a really clear sense of what Lewinsky’s place in the story was.

Lewinsky was, Drudge report in January 1998, “a young woman, 23, sexually associated with the love of she life, the president of the unified States, since she to be a 21-year-old intern at the White House. She was a constant visitor come a small study just off the Oval Office where she cases to have actually indulged the president’s sex-related preference.”

The rigid this report sets is practically pornographic in its erasure that Lewinsky’s personhood. She exists in this story exclusively to “indulge the president’s sex-related preference,” v the only nod to she personality being the she considers the chairman “the love of her life.” She is, in this framing, powerless and easily manipulated — and therefore ripe because that mockery.

The windy happily followed Drudge’s command and collection to mocking Lewinsky, producing what would come to be the dominant cultural narrative the the moment.

In a man-on-the-street report, the Washington post spoke to females who dubbed Lewinsky “a naive tiny ho, actually,” and also a “spotlight vampire.” one more Washington post report quoted a woman who stated of Lewinsky, “We all know the profile — a small fat girl the end there trying to seduce powerful men.”

“Hey look in ~ me, i’m Monica Lewinsky,” started a jingle on Howard Stern’s radio show. “They print images of my fat face and also my ’do. Though i’ve barely finished school, i still know the golden rule: carry out unto rather then have them do you too.”

This beforehand narrative was sturdy enough that versions that it to be able to persist well past the beginning of Lewinsky’s redemption. “She’s America’s favorite beret-wearing previous intern, whose very name has become a synonym for a sex action she eagerly carry out on her knees, a dame that rocketed come fame because that failing to dry-clean a blue dress stained v the seed of the then-leader that the cost-free world,” wrote Andrea Peyser in the new York short article in 2014, after ~ Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair short article was published. “Now, Lewinsky, 40, wants our pity and, perhaps, a project she can perform while sit upright. And — north roll, please — she doesn’t blame former President invoice Clinton, the alpha male prior to whom she famously knelt.”

There’s a type of just people fallacy at the facility of this narrative: Lewinsky permitted herself to it is in treated badly by the president, as such she deserved come be cure badly, so thus we have to treat her badly. Lewinsky, v her powerlessness, identified herself as an acceptable target because that our culture’s sadism, and thus it was proper for us to straight it at her. She had it coming.

This variation of the story is the one us are greatly thinking about when we indicate that American society has relocated past together outright vicious cruelty in the years since 1998. But there were other versions that the story floating about at the exact same time.

Monica Lewinsky pipeline the united state District Courthouse with her attorneys on respectable 6, 1998. Craig Herndon/The Washington article via Getty pictures

Narrative 2: Lewinsky to be the one through no power, i m sorry made she a victim who deserved ours sympathy

The idea the Lewinsky’s compare powerlessness renders her a victim of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal has end up being the leading narrative that our own era. It also existed in 1998, albeit together a minority view.

It was, strikingly, a viewpoint held both by feminists top top the left, whereby the opinion was politically unhelpful and hence unpopular, and by the conservative spiritual right, wherein the opinion was politically really useful indeed.

Linda Hirshman, a feminist lawyer and professor the philosophy and also women’s studies, dubbed on Clinton come resign in ~ the time, citing the fraught strength dynamic between Clinton and also Lewinsky and also the idea that the partnership would have actually been inherently damaging to Lewinsky.

“I think that wrong,” Hirshman claimed on the radio routine Democracy Now in 1998. “I think the truth that presidents have done it since the start of the republic is not an excuse. … The methods he interacted with her, if it’s true, is indeed a violation of our modern ideas around the moral and also proper method to resolve other human beings in our world.”

“You don’t have such fraught relationship with people who space so fragile,” Hirshman called Slate’s Slow Burn podcast in 2018. “I just went back to her cool jury testimony, and it is really wrenching. I mean, and also what she friends to be saying at the time, and what her mother was saying. Obviously over there was obtainable to objective observers evidence of just how painful this was for her no issue what she was saying around how she to be fine. Any kind of mother of a teenage daughter knows the they’ll constantly say they’re fine.”

In that viewpoint, Hirshman found an unlikely ally in conservative then-Sen. John Ashcroft. In she 1998 Democracy Now interview, she approvingly cited Ashcroft’s analysis of the power dynamics in ~ hand. “Ashcroft was on the news yesterday, speak — ns thought quite movingly and convincingly,” she said, “that the disproportion the power in between the chief executive of the joined States, a notoriously and also legendarily persuasive bill Clinton, on the one hand, and a young woman 2 months the end of university on the other, would at least offer you part pause.”

Notably, this discussion didn’t exist just on the right and in the excessive reaches of feminist discourse. Various other feminists made similar cases.

Clearly the Monica Lewinsky scandal is no a case of illegal sex-related harassment,” columnist Marjorie Williams allowed in Vanity fair in 1998. There had actually been no quid agree quo; Lewinsky had by her own account consented. “But if Clinton had actually the relationship with her the the available evidence argues he had, the flew in the challenge of the law’s spirit and reasoning.”

Williams considered the willingness of mainstream feminists to was standing by Clinton, and especially the typical feminist discussion that Clinton’s marriage to the brilliant Hillary Clinton confirmed him to be a friend to women, to it is in a treason of the cause. “There’s an awful affront to females in the apparently sharp distinctions the Clinton draws in between the kind of mrs you marry and the type of mrs you look for out for pleasure,” Williams wrote. “We were supposed to it is in doing away through the Madonna and the whore — or at least trying to incorporate them.”

Clinton additionally faced not say from females within his administration. In ~ a private Cabinet conference in September 1998, Health and also Human services Secretary Donna Shalala speak out versus Clinton’s actions directly to his face. Shalala was a previous college president, she described to Slow Burn in 2018, and also she supplied to fire human being for doing more or much less what Clinton had done come Lewinsky.

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“If she a college president, the last thing you execute is let world hit ~ above students,” she said. “I mean, we have actually rules around these things. And also it was simply unacceptable, and everybody to be being a little bit of one apologist for him in the room and I just blew up.”

In respectable 1998, among Clinton’s supporters in congress vented ~ above the problem to brand-new York time columnist Maureen Dowd. “It’s the grossest type of infidelity,” the anonymous mrs said, “just sheer constant physical relief and also satisfaction, really using in the crudest means somebody who was obviously extraordinarily gullible and also obviously madly in love with him, somebody who would have done anything because that him, and also doing this in the Oval Office. I’m having a an extremely hard time with it. Ns don’t desire to be an enabler.”

It’s striking that Dowd is the figure who publicized this view. In her beforehand coverage the the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Dowd was sharply an important of Clinton’s abuse of power and sympathetic come Lewinsky together a victim. Yet in her later columns, Dowd would start to criticize Lewinsky, too, in ways that display how this 2nd narrative of the scandal might contain within it a cruel and also vicious third narrative.

Monica Lewinsky rides in a automobile driven by one of her lawyers in downtown Washington, DC, august 1998. Note Reinstein/Corbis via Getty pictures

Narrative 3: Lewinsky to be the one v no power, i beg your pardon made she a victim, which is extremely funny and a reason to more humiliate her

In June 1998, six months ~ the story broke, Monica Lewinsky posed for a collection of portraits in Vanity Fair, wearing red lipstick and designer gowns. In a brand-new York time column, Maureen Dowd argued that the portraits to be “pornography” and that they to be “sickening.” (Lewinsky was fully clothed in every picture.)

What Dowd seemed to uncover pornographic and sickening about the photos to be the method they played versus her sense that Lewinsky to be a victim and also hence properly deserved to it is in in a state the humiliation. The she no humiliated in those pictures — the they to be glamour shots — Dowd seemed to discover both jarring and offensive.