I started writing about Monica Lewinsky earlier this week when I first heard that she was speaking out in the June issue of Vanity Fair, before I even read her article. I had been writing a piece about Chelsea Clinton, post-baby news, but I was unable to find the heart of my story. I had a good one liner, “Sometimes I wish my inner Chelsea was a little bit more Clinton and a little bit less Handler,” and a funny bit about my family being a long line of Roger Clintons. I also noted that my dad never had sex with an intern, but only because no one in their right mind would have ever given him an intern.
Al I could really get at was that I had nothing in common with Chelsea. She never chose to go the rebel route. She is the perfect daughter: going Ivy League, working for their foundation, marrying the right kind of guy, getting pregnant at the perfect moment for positive family publicity. She wears the pantsuit well. Making a contrast between us was arbitrary at best. Then Monica poked her head up from under the proverbial desk, and I shouted, “Eureka!” Well maybe I didn’t shout, maybe I just grabbed my phone and started scribbling notes, mostly about how she was collateral damage, even the feminists left her stranded—they saw her on the beach, waving her blue beret in the air, HELP etched into the sand, and they barely winced as they kept scanning their binoculars out over open water. Nothing to see here folks, just a bright young intern who was trampled by the male-dominated political machine. How could feminists reconcile supporting her and attempting to rescue a well-liked, feminist-leaning democrat? I always thought of her as someone who must have felt deeply isolated.
When the article was released in the digital edition, I downloaded it and devoured her story. It is insightful, well-written, and charming. It also made me sad. She begins by recalling a scene where she was asked by an interviewer for an HBO documentary how she felt about being “America’s premier blow-job queen.” She uses the scenario to demonstrate how humiliated she was, for herself, for her entire family and then addresses her present reader, “It may surprise you to learn that I am actually a person.” She admits that what she needed back then and never received publicly was, “good old-fashioned, girl-on-girl support.” I was also happy to see her speak out about the relationship itself, refuting the blow-job-only narrative and describing her relationship with Clinton as more fully evolved, and bravely confessing that from her point of view, “It was an authentic connection, with emotional intimacy, frequent visits, plans made, phone calls and gifts exchanged.” Her description of a relationship between two human beings runs completely counter to the widely held narrative of her as an almost inanimate object perched beneath a desk—the white-collar man’s glory hole. I can think of few examples that place a woman so squarely in the position of object as the story of Monica Lewinsky.
Lewinsky and I are the same age and when the story broke in 1998, I remember being stunned that someone my age was actually working in the White House. I was very busy failing out of community college and not showing up for my job as a courier for a law firm. I was later replaced by a much more reliable and less smart-ass fax machine. I recall her interview with Barbara Walters, and her appearances on SNL, playing herself next to John Goodman’s more memorable Linda Tripp. She was trying to tell her story, but the only outlets available were always based on her as a sexual token. Her story was a running blow job joke. I didn’t question her decision to retreat into silence. All these years, I hoped that she was sitting back somewhere receiving royalties and speaking out about the benefits of keeping up with the laundry. I also thought that we, as a country, moved on, like even possibly evolved.
Unfortunately, my optimism was squelched. Lewinsky describes her difficulty in landing jobs because of the possible negative publicity that it could bring to potential employers. She also describes how she is recognized every single day. This made me pause to consider the gravity of her position as “That woman.” The idea that people recognize her based on what she did behind closed doors is like an entire life led doing the walk of shame—eyeliner smeared down to the cheeks, high heels in the daylight, a thong in the purse—but it isn’t just a nosy neighbor that sees her, like the old lady that lives next door and probably hasn’t been laid since the Carter administration, it is everyone. Everyone in America. All the time.
My biggest issue with the Monica Lewinsky story is that it is the “Monica Lewinsky” story. It is clearly her shame on the line and not Bill Clinton’s—he is more beloved now than ever. He is a philanthropist. He is the explainer-in-chief. He is resilient. Lewinsky was not the one who was married. She was also not responsible to the American people. He had considerable more responsibility to any sense of morality, and he was the one who got off. She was very possibly attracted to the most powerful man in the world. Maybe she was flattered that this man showed her attention—maybe she was motivated by actual feelings of attraction, and she acted on them, with his approval and assistance, at the least, and much more likely with his urging. The issue is the hypocrisy inherent in her carrying the burden of shame, while he carries the badge of virility.
Lewinsky was twenty-two when she was first reportedly sexually involved with President Clinton—when I was twenty-two I would have had sex with almost anyone. Thanks for buying me that beer! Thanks for delivering this pizza! Thanks for leading our country out of a recession! Her story reminds me to be thankful that I was nailing losers. In her article in Vanity Fair, she repeatedly calls her affair with Clinton “consensual,” which is important because the only female that could be more vilified and objectified than one who gives blow jobs under desks (the slut) or most certainly does not give blow jobs under desks (the wife) is the woman who claims she was sexually assaulted (the opportunist). There is a box within this framework where all the women can be neatly placed and handled accordingly. When it really comes down to it, women were the real losers in this scandal. Women got nothing out of it—the entire situation was one big metaphoric blow job.