Everyone makes mistakes, but only some suffer perpetual consequences for those mistakes. The mistake I’m referring to in this case is the affair between the married President Bill Clinton and the young intern Monica Lewinsky that occurred during his presidency. The affair shocked the nation and almost led to the 42nd president’s impeachment for lying under oath. While Clinton has gone on to lead a successful political career, Lewinsky’s life was nearly destroyed by the extreme humiliation she endured at the hands of the media. The shame-hungry media destroyed Lewinsky’s reputation and ensured she would never forget her mistake. Despite her humiliation as a young woman, recently, Lewinsky has begun to speak about her experience and call people to action, hoping to put an end to the harm social media can cause. The once scarlet letter-marked woman is using her platform to warn against the dangers of cyber-bullying.
In 1995, a fresh faced and ambitious Monica Lewinsky landed a highly sought after internship at the White House, and by the age of 22, she was secretly having an affair with the president of the United States, Bill Clinton. Eventually, in 1998, news of the affair broke and dominated the media. Inevitably, magazines, newspapers, and websites could not get enough of the scandal. Lewinsky was called countless cruel names, shamed and blamed by the media. As a result, Lewinsky felt embarrassed and humiliated. The humiliation Lewinsky experienced after the affair with President Clinton was so severe that her parents feared suicide was a possibility for their young daughter. In the months following the newsbreak, Lewinsky’s mother made sure her daughter showered with the door open because, as Lewinsky describes, there was a time when her parents “feared that I would be humiliated to death – literally” (Lewinsky).
Although Lewinsky made a mistake many others have made, she was forced to suffer a much more public and extreme humiliation at the hands of media. Countless jokes and slur-filled headlines were published at Lewinsky’s expense, such that the aftermath of her mistake was unavoidable. Although Lewinsky has said she is grateful social media wasn’t around at the time of the leak, news of the affair still spread like wildfire through emails, word of mouth, and news publications. Even now the Clinton-Lewinsky affair maintains its place in the media. As Lewinsky said in one conference “not a day goes by that I am not reminded of my mistake” (“Price”). Lewinsky, or “that woman” as Clinton famously described her, struggles to be taken seriously as a woman in the workplace and society. And until quite recently, the name Lewinsky was only synonymous with affairs and mistresses.
The effects of Lewinsky’s mistake live on not only through word of mouth, handed down by parents or teachers, but also through song lyrics and skits in which Lewinsky is the punch line of the joke. At the height of the scandal, Saturday Night Live chose to follow the lead of other media and depict Lewinsky in a negative light with actress Molly Shannon portraying Lewinsky. In a skit with John Goodman playing Linda Tripp, the woman who secretly recorded and leaked Lewinsky’s account of the affair, Shannon portrays a ditzy, naïve and stereotypically young intern, shaping the way much of America viewed the real-life Lewinsky. Since then, the name Lewinsky and the affair have been mentioned in over forty songs including Beyoncé’s popular 2014 hit “Partition” and rapper Danny Brown’s “Witit.” Media has ensured Lewinsky is remembered for her mistake, and given her very little chance to alter America’s perception of her. Despite these difficulties, Lewinsky has recently been able to seize that small opportunity and use her experience to speak out and warn against the repercussions of a media that makes and industry based on shame and humiliation.
As part of her campaign against cyber-bullying, Monica Lewinsky recently spoke at two conferences, the Forbes 30 Under 30 Summit and “The Price of Shame” conference, put on by TED, and ended years of self-imposed silence. In her speeches, Lewinsky explains just how harmful humiliation can be, stating that it almost took her life and has caused others to take theirs. In both of these speeches, Lewinsky describes the tragedy of Tyler Clementi, the student at Rutgers University who committed suicide when his roommate recorded his relations with another man and published them on social media for others to see. The shame and humiliation Tyler endured caused him to end his life. Tyler’s was a suicide spurred by the cruel actions of others multiplied by the reach of social media. Lewinsky tells the story of Tyler as a more extreme consequence of cyber-bullying, warning her audience about the deep and sometimes fatal harm this type of humiliation can cause.
Likewise, Lewinsky’s own narrative as well as other similar stories reveal how damaging social media and cyber-bullying can be. Lewinsky connects the damages produced by social media to our society when she quotes historian Nicolaus Mills and his idea of a “culture of humiliation” in which “shame is an industry” (Lewinsky). In this shame-driven industry, predators profit from the humiliation of their prey. Humiliating celebrities through hacking and leaking personal photos has become commonplace, and the more shame a website has the potential to make a person feel, the more traffic the website gets. The shaming of individuals, those in the public eye and not, has become the currency of an industry that thrives off of the humiliation of others. Lewinsky uses her platform and her story to speak out against the shame-thirsty media and advocate for the end of cyber bullying. Lewinsky speaks in order “to have the aftermath of her affair with President Bill Clinton considered from her point of view and to position herself as an advocate against cyberbullying” (Cornish). Using her infamy, Monica Lewinsky has made her story heard and opened America’s eyes to a culture fixed on shame and humiliation.
The positive reception of Lewinsky’s Forbes speech, TED conference and other outreach programs reveals the complete transformation of the way many Americans see “that woman.” Jessica Bennett of the New York Times sums this transformation up best when she explains that “most of the response was positive. As I wrote the article, it was almost as if a kind of public reckoning was underway. People were being … nice” (Bennett). Journalists and writers were recognizing their mistakes and expressing regret for the negative statements they had shamed Lewinsky with years ago. Lewinsky’s conferences and speeches have given the media and society the opportunity to view “that woman” in a new, much less shame-focused light and adjust their perception of Lewinsky for the better.
By speaking out, explaining her experience and how harmful social media and cyber-bullying can be, Monica Lewinsky has revealed a new side of “that woman” to America. A woman who many people labeled a “tart” and a “slut” because of a mistake she made at 22 is now using her platform to advocate for the end of cyber bullying and a less shame-focused social media. Lewinsky’s speeches are causing the people who previously judged her to recognize her side of the story and the severity of cyber-bullying and the media. Before Lewinsky began speaking, a Google search of her name resulted in only websites detailing her affair with Clinton. Now, a search of Monica’s name on Google results in endless articles explaining her advocacy against cyber-bullying and her warnings about the negative aspects of social media. By giving speeches, Monica Lewinsky has given “that woman” and all victims of humiliation at the hands of the media a voice—a voice that many people are realizing deserves to be heard.
Bennett, Jessica. “Monica Lewinsky: Cultural Rorschach Test?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 27 Mar. 2015. Web. 05 Apr. 2015.
Cornish, Audie, and Jessica Bennett. “Monica Lewinsky Redefines Her Story In Anti-Cyberbullying TED Talk.” NPR. NPR, 23 Mar. 2015. Web. 25 Mar. 2015.
Lewinsky, Monica, and Mark Seliger. “Exclusive: Monica Lewinsky on the Culture of Humiliation.” Vanity Fair. N.p., June 2014. Web. 22 Mar. 2015.
—. “The Price of Shame.” TED Conference, 2015. Online.