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Monica Lewinsky's Second Act

The former White House intern's emergence as an anti-cyber-bullying advocate illustrates both the healthy and dark sides of rewriting one’s narrative. Monica Lewinsky is pictured here at the 2015 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Evan Agostini/AP)MoreCloseclosemore
The former White House intern's emergence as an anti-cyber-bullying advocate illustrates both the healthy and dark sides of rewriting one’s narrative. Monica Lewinsky is pictured here at the 2015 Vanity Fair Oscar Party on Sunday, Feb. 22, 2015, in Beverly Hills, Calif. (Evan Agostini/AP)

While struggling to find the lede for this essay about Monica Lewinsky, I indulged in a little web-surfing procrastination, ending up at CNN.com. There I found a bounty of stories that could distract. I could get the scoop on “8 Celebrities who are Disliked by their Peers,” or indulge in some schadenfreude by reading about “Absolutely Beautiful Ladies who Lost their Looks.” And of course, in these invasive and cruel shards of trivia, I found what I was looking for.

"A marketplace has emerged where public humiliation is a commodity, and shame is an industry,” Monica Lewinsky said in a recent, highly publicized TED Talk [video below]. “…The more we saturate our culture with public shaming, the more accepted it is, the more we will see behavior like cyberbullying, trolling, some forms of hacking and online harassment. Why? Because they all have humiliation at their cores. This behavior is a symptom of the culture we've created.”

Damned if “that woman” isn’t right.

There’s nothing new in mockery. Tabloid headlines served as click bait long before there was a worldwide web, and collective snickering has always created affinity, however ephemeral, between people with nothing in common but a shared object of scorn. But the Internet’s capacity to make the private public, to create cultural currency out of bad singers or overweight dancers, seems to have redefined entertainment. And in doing so, it’s obscured the difference between fictitious, two-dimensional characters and real, three-dimensional human beings. We feel free to insult, mock and verbally abuse anyone, their essential humanity somehow digitally flattened and negated.

the Internet’s capacity to make the private public ... [has] obscured the difference between fictitious, two-dimensional characters and real, three-dimensional human beings.

In some cases, such as with wannabe celebrities whose unfortunate vocals reduce American Idol judges and millions of viewers to hysterical laughter, the humiliated have put themselves in that situation. Sometimes, like the biting baby, they have landed there thanks to parents whose love and amusement overwhelm their discretion. And sometimes, as was the case for both Monica Lewinsky in 1998 and Tyler Clementi, the gay Rutgers student driven to suicide in 2010, notoriety is imposed upon them by illegal, immoral recording and leaking of private conversation and activity. But whatever the source, celebrity invites a suspension of empathy. The people everyone’s talking about cease to be people.

So why didn’t many of us — even the most prominent feminists among us — see Lewinsky as a victim in 1998, when her affair with her boss, who happened to be the most powerful man in the world, came to light? In part it’s because she claimed, and still claims, to have been a sexually desirous, consensual partner, not the target of sexual harassment. More importantly, we liked Bill — in part because he was so accessible and real and flawed — and were angered by anyone who gave his political assassins ammunition. And we liked Hillary; as the jilted and lied to and disappointed wife, we keenly felt her public humiliation, so much so that it blinded some of us to the ordeal of a 22-year-old whose mouth, hairstyle, clothing and sexual talents became the butt of everyone’s jokes.

“I was the Unstable Stalker (a phrase disseminated by the Clinton White House), the Dimwit Floozy, the Poor Innocent who didn’t know any better,” Lewinsky says in a recent Vanity Fair essay (one that’s accompanied by an exasperatingly, perhaps defiantly flirty photo of Lewinsky reclining on a red — indeed, scarlet — sofa). Branded by the media, she says, “I became a social representation, a social canvas on which anybody could project their confusion about women, sex, infidelity, politics, and body issues.”

In this, too, I now think she is right. Monica was no Anita Hill, for whom I and most of my fellow travelers had enormous sympathy and admiration. Unlike Lewinsky, after enduring the Senate Judiciary Committee’s excoriation when she stood up against Clarence Thomas (a man who we all disliked as much as we liked Bill Clinton), Hill chose to disappear with dignity back into academia. We approved.

In contrast, Monica tried to parlay her infamy into careers as a handbag designer, Jenny Craig spokesperson and reality television show host. She now says that, unemployable in any of the “branding” or “creative communications” jobs she sought, she was simply trying to make some money to cover her living expenses and enormous legal bills. Maybe, maybe not, but the fact is that, in these pursuits, she perpetuated her own cartoon-like image as an ironically shameless attention-seeker. In the same Vanity Fair essay, Lewinsky says of the 10 year silence following her various adventures in the fashion and media business, “Then I lay low for the most part … After all, not lying low had exposed me to criticism for trying to ‘capitalize’ on my ‘notoriety.’ Apparently, others talking about me is O.K.; me speaking out for myself is not.”

Giving purpose to one’s past is not an act of recognition, but of invention. It’s overlaying a current, perhaps more socially desirable template on a far different set of past motivations.

And that’s the nub of her argument to which I keep returning. In this, her well-designed second act orchestrated by a slew of advisers, Monica Lewinsky has declared her intention to “reclaim my narrative and give a purpose to my past.” On first read, that’s a powerful statement, a refreshing assertion that if her celebrity is inescapable, she will at least exercise some power in defining it and apply it to the worthy cause of combating cyber-bullying.

But I also find it disturbing. Giving purpose to one’s past is not an act of recognition, but of invention. It’s overlaying a current, perhaps more socially desirable template on a far different set of past motivations.

I don’t begrudge Lewinsky’s attempt to do this. Nobody wants to say “my life is a jagged journey of blind turns and accidental fortune;” we all try to make sense of our present by creating and refining our story about how we got here. Still, in the repackaging of Monica Lewinsky, in the repurposing of her past, I can’t help but see a cause marketing campaign at work. In today’s market, the brands that do well are those that do good. If she really wants to communicate not just creatively, but honestly, Monica will acknowledge that she's still seeking to build her brand, albeit in a more socially acceptable package.

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Julie Wittes Schlack Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Julie Wittes Schlack writes essays, short stories and book reviews for various publications, including WBUR's Cognoscenti and The ARTery, and is the author of “This All-at-Onceness” (Pact Press, 2019).

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