The renais­sance of Mon­i­ca Lewinsky

She’s helping to produce the next series of American Crime Story about the Clinton Scandal – and reclaiming her narrative in the process.

How can we not be fas­ci­nat­ed by Mon­i­ca Lewin­sky? Both Lewin­sky the flesh-and-blood woman (of whom I am a huge fan) and Lewin­sky the cul­tur­al touchstone.

She is the point at which the past and the present coa­lesce; a new future spooled out from the Clin­ton scan­dal – one of 24-hour news cycles, live devel­op­ing sto­ries, online harass­ment and pub­lic sham­ing. One of infi­nite opin­ions, backed by not-very-many facts.

Of course you have to be flint-heart­ed, in a way, to find it fas­ci­nat­ing because it destroyed a young woman’s life (more on this in a moment). But it is rare for one sto­ry to so per­fect­ly crys­tallise the shift­ing of eras. Because in 1998, to bor­row the words of the woman her­self, Lewin­sky became the patient zero” of the inter­net age.

It all began in 1995 when a new­ly grad­u­at­ed Mon­i­ca Lewin­sky, just 21-years-old, took an unpaid intern­ship in the White House. Work­ing in the office of then-Pres­i­dent Bill Clinton’s Chief of Staff, Leon Panet­ta she soon came into con­tact with the mar­ried Pres­i­dent, who was 49. How (or per­haps more impor­tant­ly why – 21! 49!) their affair came about isn’t real­ly the point – it’s enough to say that it began soon after they met and it last­ed two years.

It wasn’t until Jan­u­ary 1998 the ram­i­fi­ca­tions of the affair became known to Lewin­sky. While at lunch with her friend Lin­da Tripp, she was sud­den­ly sur­round­ed by a group of armed FBI agents. They hus­tled her into a near­by hotel room and revealed that they had more than 20 hours of record­ed phone calls – all relat­ing her affair with the Pres­i­dent. They were inves­ti­gat­ing Clin­ton on cor­rup­tion charges and told her that if she didn’t coop­er­ate with them, she could face up to 27 years in prison. The tapes had been made by Tripp, who had been Lewinsky’s friend and con­fi­dante through­out that period. 

At the time The Drudge Report was a three-year-old Con­ser­v­a­tive news aggre­ga­tor, a basic, sub­scrip­tion-only newslet­ter which dealt main­ly in sec­ond-hand sto­ries. But it was they who broke the news of the affair – and in so doing, made it the first scan­dal of this mag­ni­tude to break via the Internet. 

In the year that fol­lowed, Lewin­sky – aged just 24 – was wide­ly con­demned; called a slut, a whore, a bim­bo (the talk­show host Jay Leno famous­ly quipped: Mon­i­ca Lewin­sky has gained back all the weight she lost last year. [She’s] con­sid­er­ing hav­ing her jaw wired shut but then, nah, she didn’t want to give up her sex life.”) She was shamed on a mass scale and harassed by media and author­i­ties alike. Even the fem­i­nist icon Glo­ria Steinem wrote an essay in The New York Times down­play­ing Clinton’s actions on the basis that even if the alle­ga­tions are true, the Pres­i­dent is not guilty of sex­u­al harass­ment. He is accused of hav­ing made a gross, dumb and reck­less pass”. (She has since gone on to say that she would not write the same thing now.) 

From our mod­ern van­tage point, it’s hard to see how or why no one stopped to con­sid­er the pow­er imbal­ance between the 21-year-old intern and the 50-some­thing leader-of-the-free-world. Now, we’d call it gross at best and, at worst, coer­cion – a vio­la­tion of her abil­i­ty to con­sent. But that was then and this is now. Refram­ing the scan­dal and the atti­tudes to Lewin­sky using the morals and val­ues of our post-#MeToo world can only do so much. Times have changed, progress has been made; the past doesn’t look so rosy any­more, that is what progress is. 

What’s true, though, is that, for bet­ter or worse, the scan­dal turned her into a pop cul­ture icon. As she says in her mov­ing TED talk – I have been ref­er­enced in almost 40 rap songs”; her name became syn­ony­mous with a cer­tain type of woman, and to Lewin­sky” became short­hand for fel­la­tio, com­ing or cheat­ing. Even Bey­oncé admon­ished a part­ner in Par­ti­tion after he Mon­i­ca Lewin­sky – ed all on her gown.”

In fact, as The Cuts cul­ture writer Alli­son P. Davis point­ed out it is [only] Nic­ki Minaj’s use of Mon­i­ca Lewin­sky that man­ages to tran­scend the clichés…When Minaj calls her­self Young Mon­ey Mon­i­ca,” she’s cop­ping the name as a sex­u­al dis­rupter, as a woman who knows the pow­er of her own sex­u­al­i­ty and can har­ness it for great wealth and, ulti­mate­ly, pow­er. It took near­ly 20 years, and a woman, to tru­ly do the metaphor justice.” 

Basi­cal­ly, before there was viral con­tent”, Lewin­sky became viral con­tent. Before there were memes, Lewin­sky became a meme. She has writ­ten beau­ti­ful­ly about the trau­ma she suf­fered at the hands of face­less mil­lions. She has spo­ken about the fact that dur­ing the peri­od of the scan­dal her par­ents made her show­er with the door open because they feared she might take her own life rather than live through more pub­lic shaming.

And in recent years, she has tak­en that pain and turned it into cam­paigns to tack­le cyber­bul­ly­ing; she has not only reclaimed pow­er over her own sto­ry but has also become a fig­ure-head, a bea­con of hope, for mil­lions who have felt vic­timised by online harassers. 

On a basic lev­el, the next series of Amer­i­can Crime Sto­ry will deal with the affair, the 13 month inves­ti­ga­tion which fol­lowed and the impeach­ment of Pres­i­dent Clin­ton. Beanie Feld­stein (who blew us away in Books­mart ear­li­er this year), will play the young Lewin­sky oppo­site Sarah Paul­son as Lin­da Tripp, the friend who sold her out to the FBI. It has yet to be announced who will play Clinton. 

On a deep­er lev­el, though, the next series of Amer­i­can Crime Sto­ry will deal with the birth of inter­net cul­ture, who we are in the inter­net age and how online anonymi­ty changes the very fab­ric of soci­ety. Fascinating.

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