Scrunchies. Faded denim. Overalls. Pokémon. Alternative music. All of these 1990s trends have resurfaced in the last few years with a better reputation than they had in their original incarnation. So, it seems, there’s no better time than now to reexamine Monica Lewinsky’s reputation.
Most students at William Jewell College were no older than 4 or 5 when news of President Bill Clinton’s affair with 22-year-old White House intern Monica Lewinsky broke in January 1998. Still, it’s unlikely that any of us has not at least heard of Lewinsky or Clinton’s scandal, especially since the scandal was popularly used as (irrelevant) political ammunition against Hillary Clinton during the 2016 election. In Lewinsky’s 2015 TED talk, she notes that her name has been mentioned in almost 40 rap songs.
So, it’s clear Monica is an icon, but not in the positive sense. Tabloids capitalized on her infamy, releasing issues that exploited her personal life, bastardized her and her family and made false claims against her. Republicans made her into the poster child for the wretchedness of the Democratic Party. Democrats branded her a seductress and lampooned her for ruining their party’s leader. She was forced into total isolation and granted no reprieve. Everyone was given a reason to detest her, regardless of validity.
Whether you believe Monica’s role in the scandal is highly problematic or not is irrelevant. What I intend to argue is that, instead of being iconic for “sluttiness” and her capacity to divert the nation with a single sexual act, she should be known for transforming her infamy into positive change within a society intent on humiliating her to the fullest possible extent.
The large-scale, essentially international scope of the scandal made Monica the target for a global siege of shame, during which she had no allies, save for her mother. The world hated her, yet they knew so little about her. It would be ignorant to assume that Monica got her comeuppance, that the true and just punishment for pursuing a married man is worldwide denigration. There must be a line drawn where public shaming crosses over to cruel and unusual territory.
Sociologically, shame comes in two brands: reintegrative and disintegrative. Reintegrative shame operates on forgiveness and utilizes compassion to allow the shamed individual to re-enter society so long as remorse is expressed. Disintegrative shame, the kind Monica faced and the kind that is so prevalent on the internet and in modern culture, is intended to ostracize and exclude the shamed individual from society. There is no mercy granted. The shamed individual is told that she has permanently abdicated her place in society and that absolution is unreachable.
If reintegrative shame is clearly the more humane option, why are we so inclined to shame disintegratively? Simply put, it’s easy, and it’s fun. Disintegration strips the shamed individual of her role in society and of any mitigating or circumstantial factors that could make her seem less hateable or, dare I say it, relatable. Stripped of definable human characteristics, she can be made into a punching bag, a mode of political catharsis.
In Monica’s case, she was considered simply a “whore” and a “bimbo.” Society didn’t have to consider the fact that she was suicidal or that she had been betrayed and deserted by close friends or that she had been faced with up to 27 years of prison time for a seemingly inconsequential act. Instead, they could easily air their governmental grievances using Monica as a scapegoat. Unlike the President, she wasn’t known for anything but the affair. People believed they could scrupulously abhor her because, to them, she was no more than the President’s side chick who stood to jeopardize the nation’s order.
Journalists reported on the scandal beyond their assumed duty. They targeted Monica’s looks, character and intelligence to the point that they nearly ignored the President’s role in the scandal. The media’s assignment of blame was completely disproportionate and skewed majorly toward Monica because the media recognized that she could easily be manipulated to look like a villain. Monica was viewed as an instigator, assumed to have seduced the president into straying from his executive duties. In reality, she was young and in a position of subservience to the president. There was a conspicuous imbalance of power that was ignored by the media in order to proliferate the sexist but satiating narrative of the female succubus.
Mass media had a field day molding her into a universal enemy. John Moody, a Fox executive editor said, “The Lewinsky saga put us on the news map.” News networks were apathetic about accurate, compassionate or even truthful portrayals of Monica. They knew they had an enticing story, and they were intent to milk it for every bit of profit they could acquire.
Monica said in a recent article she wrote for the New York Times that she masochistically spent weeks after the scandal arose consuming news media and was devastated by the egregious dishonesty and sensationalization. For 10 years, she stayed silent, cornered into isolation by the ravenous mob media, afraid to leave her house and convinced she was as awful as the media portrayed.
The following is important: Since her confession, Monica has made explicitly clear her regret. She did not simply leave the past unacknowledged and attempt to engage in philanthropic efforts in order to obfuscate her missteps. Through this acknowledgement, Monica has created for herself a path of redemption.
Not only did she acknowledge her role and express remorse, but she utilized her international spotlight to promote an admirable cause: appropriately, anti-bullying. Her decade-long silence streak ended when she appeared at Forbes’ 30 under 30 Summit in Philadelphia in 2015, proposing her counter-cyber-bullying initiative. Later that year, she presented her aforementioned Ted Talk, “The Price of Shame.” After being almost entirely excluded from society, it’s quite inspiring that she has braved the unforgiving public to advance an admirable cause.
With this knowledge, can you rationally say that Monica Lewinsky is an example of poor human conduct? Is it not the object of shame in an unadulterated sense to provoke the reformation and upstanding moral action of individuals in society? Monica applied her shame in a way that contributed to morality in society. She should be praised for how she’s grown and what she’s done, not despised for what she did.
Photo courtesy of AC News.