“That woman” has found her voice – and the timing couldn’t be more significant.
Monica Lewinsky, the former White House intern whose affair with President Clinton led to his impeachment scandal, is back with an essay entitled Shame and Survival in the June issue of Vanity Fair, on newsstands now. Breaking a decade of silence – the last time she gave an interview was in response to the release of Bill Clinton’s 2004 autobiography – she explains herself with a powerful mixture of humour, confidence, honesty and pointed criticism. She wants to lay out the facts (once again) that the relationship was consensual and that she “deeply” regrets it.
But, interestingly, the piece has seen criticism from the most unlikely sources – women. Andrea Peyser of the New York Post has called it a “whiny sell-all” from a “shame-filled recluse.” Jezebel, the feminist website, portrays Lewinsky as hypocritical and fame-hungry.
Like many women, Lewinsky is most often seen through a reductive lens, one that focuses on surface details – her hair, her clothes, her looks – as a method of divining character. People remember her for the infamous blue dress, the thong, the black beret and the lip gloss. Now, at 40, she wants to be seen for her substance. “It’s time to burn the beret and bury the blue dress,” she writes. “It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a person.”
Her explanation for writing the piece involves the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who was secretly captured kissing another man, opening a national discussion about cyberbullying. Lewinsky, who describes herself as “possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet,” understands that kind of pain and humiliation. She, too, felt suicidal in her darkest moments, she confesses. She wants to help by sharing her story.
Such impulses, if true, are commendable, but the real decision to speak out now may have more to do with the fact that Hillary Clinton, whose memoir comes out in June, is widely expected to announce her run for the Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton’s moment is Lewinsky’s new moment. She has had trouble finding steady work in the 16 years since Interngate. She turned down offers worth over $10-million, she writes. Among the ventures that did come to pass, she has launched designer bags, hawked a diet plan, appeared on Saturday Night Live and developed and starred in a 2002 HBO documentary, Monica in Black and White. In 2006, Lewinsky earned a master’s degree in social psychology from the London School of Economics in England. But every time she tried to get a job in her chosen field of marketing and communications, her past became an issue. In 2008, she was told during a promising job interview that she would need to get a letter of indemnification from the Clintons because there was a chance Hillary could become the next president in that year’s election. Lewinsky remained “virtually reclusive” during that campaign. And with another one imminent, she decided it was time to stop “tip-toeing” around her past and other people’s careers.
That takes balls, if you ask me. “Should I put my life on hold for another eight to 10 years?” she asks. Why should she? Lewinsky, who has never married, is clear on her views about the ex-president and his wife. “This is not about Me versus the Clintons,” she explains. “I wish them no ill. And I fully understand that what has happened to me and the issue of my future do not matter to either of them.”
Where she seems to have rattled other women is her willingness to take a few shots at Hillary. In recently released papers, the former First Lady is quoted as faulting her husband for his inappropriate behaviour, adding that her emotional distance may have contributed to it but commending him for trying to manage Lewinsky, whom she characterizes as a “narcissistic loony-tune.” Lewinsky punches back: “I find her impulse to blame the women – not only me, but herself – troubling,” she writes.
And she fearlessly criticizes feminists for not offering any support on issues that concerned gender politics and sex in the workplace. It’s a weird form of misogyny by other women, she points out.
The response has been typical of a mean-girl clique. Many female commentators are closing rank around their adored front-runner. And if that means resorting to slut-shaming Lewinsky again, why not? Who cares if it’s the very thing they have campaigned against in the past? Some even criticize Lewinsky for appearing in the Vanity Fair shoot dressed in a white, “virginal” gown. They will gladly flatten her to a style-dictated archetype instead of allowing her a fully rounded intellect, morality and humanity.
Lewinsky is all grown-up, shrewd and honest. That Woman is now This Woman. “I am determined to have a different ending to my story,” she writes. Well, let’s hope she can, if only other women would let her.