One evening in 2000, when I was living in Los Angeles, a celebrity showed up at the hotel restaurant where I was having dinner. This hotel kept a nearly-naked woman reclining in a glass tank in the lobby, which should tell you something about what was considered the high life at the ash-end of the 1990s.
No one ever acknowledged a famous person’s presence in L.A. It was a badge of honour. The ghost of Marilyn Monroe could have walked in and blown her nose on a tablecloth and people would have kept picking at their dressing-free salads. But I noticed something odd this evening: As this celebrity entered the restaurant, everyone’s head swivelled toward the door, and followed her as she sat at the table. We were transfixed.
This was odd, because the celebrity was more famous for what had been done to her than anything she herself had done. Monica Lewinsky was a cipher: We knew, in those days following the Starr report, that she had had an affair with Bill Clinton when he was president. But beyond that, the details of her own story were scant and shaped by partisans. What we knew about her were nouns, tied in a salacious thread: Cigar, dress, Leaves of Grass. Impeachment.
At the centre, where her personhood existed and the truth resided, there was largely silence. Ms. Lewinsky had written a book – had it ghostwritten for her, actually – and given a famous interview to Barbara Walters, but otherwise, the story was told by others. It was told in headlines such as, “The lady is a tramp,” which appeared in 1999. Famously, it was told by the men who wrote books about Mr. Clinton and decided that the disastrous fallout of the president’s decision to have an affair with a 22-year-old and then lie about it should not bear his name (which would be saved for a foundation and library) but instead be called “the Lewinsky scandal.” Her story was also told by feminists who took the president’s side.
“I was seen by many, but known by few,” Ms. Lewinsky said in a TED Talk she gave in 2015, outlining the ways that a brief period in her early adulthood had overshadowed and strangled the rest of it. Over the past few years, she’s started to take control over the shaping of her story – including repeatedly apologizing for her role in the drama that waylaid American politics in the late 1990s. This week, we learned that she’ll be a producer on a new TV series about that time, called Impeachment: American Crime Story, in which her role will be played by actor Beanie Feldstein.
Ms. Lewinsky told Vanity Fair, where she’s a contributing editor, that she’d been reluctant “and more than a little scared” to sign on the project. But she was persuaded by American Crime Story’s creator, Ryan Murphy, who told her he wouldn’t produce the series without her co-operation, and, crucially, that she “should make all the goddamn money.”
Yes, please. Show her the money. Show her the script, too, and give her a big red pen to make notes in the margins. For too long, women – especially the ones branded troublesome, difficult or libertine – were written out of their own stories. History isn’t just written by the victors; it’s also written by the gatekeepers, who have an interest in maintaining particular power structures. You know, the ones that have been in place for millennia, allowing some to yell from the ramparts and locking others in the basement.
Regaining power over her story is one of the main reasons she wanted to participate in the new show, Ms. Lewinsky said in her statement:
“I’m so grateful for the growth we’ve made as a society that allows people like me who have been historically silenced to finally reintroduce my voice to the conversation. This isn’t just a me problem. Powerful people, often men, take advantage of those subordinate to them in myriad ways all the time.”
If anyone deserves to have a last laugh, it’s a woman who’s been a punchline for the past 20 years. Jay Leno made her a constant butt of his sad jokes, once saying she should get a Grammy for “best organ recital.” When she enrolled at the London School of Economics in a master’s program in psychology, London’s staid Sunday Times greeted her with the headline, “Hello Boys! Freshers at the LSE brace themselves for Monica.” I’ll admit my culpability here: When I wrote a story about Ms. Lewinsky studying at LSE, I made a joke about her one day becoming “Dr. Portly Pepperpot” (this was the nickname the New York Post famously gave her). I was as guilty as anyone of piling on.
Ms. Lewinsky can now chuckle all the way to the world’s television screens, and perhaps even to the Emmy Awards, where she will undoubtedly maintain a gracious distance and not trash-talk the former president who derailed her life.
She can also take consolation in the fact that she has helped victims of bullying, in her advocacy work. Perhaps best of all, she’s become an inspiration for other women who were tarred in the public eye and shut out of their own histories. Lorena Bobbitt, who famously cut off her husband’s penis after what she says was sustained physical and sexual abuse, has also re-emerged to tell her side of things (Mr. Bobbitt denies those allegations).
She now goes by the name Lorena Gallo, and her voice is at the heart of a four-part documentary series called Lorena that launched earlier this year. It was Ms. Lewinsky’s example, her defiance of being penned in, that inspired Ms. Gallo to participate in the documentary, she told The New York Times: “We were vilified by the media, vilified and that is so sad. It happens to women.”
Or it used to happen, anyway. There’s been a change of guards at the gates, and the new ones have something to say.
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