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 Cut’s 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.