Monica Lewinsky’s Comeback Shows We’re as Confused About Her as Ever

Sixteen years ago, I spent every morning eating Cheerios with no milk and reading the newspaper, like every kid who wanted to know what was going on in the world. But on a September day in 1998, my copy of The Boston Globe had a special section about The Starr Report, an exhaustive, R-rated tale of how then-President Bill Clinton had an affair with intern Monica Lewinsky. Blue dresses. Linda Tripp. A description of the President’s sexual proclivities. The cigar was included, in excruciating detail.

Monica Lewinsky was propelled into the public eye, a Rorschach test for what the media and America thought about sex, women, and power. The results were ugly, a national nightmare, and within the prism of feminist/leftist media, the results were all over the place. Lewinsky says, essentially, that “feminists failed me” in the new Vanity Fair interview, although a reaction from Anna Holmes, the founder and former editor of Jezebel, in the Washington Post is more eloquent: “I am uncomfortable with the idea that ‘feminists’ failed Ms. Lewinsky. I am far more comfortable with the idea that certain high-profile activists, intellectuals and writers who’d exhibited a measure of sophistication and sensitivity with regards to gender politics failed her, and failed her big time.”

Looking back at some prominent media, both feminist and left-leaning and otherwise, gives a clearer picture of where they were at in 1998, when it came to Monica Lewinsky:

The New York Observer‘s “New York Supergals Love That Naughty Prez” (by noted author Francine Prose) was an interesting conversation including the likes of Katie Roiphe, Patricia Marx, and Erica Jong. Lewinsky notably took this article to task in her VF piece, but it’s not particularly cruel, I find. Just gabby. Perhaps it’s best summed up with this quote: “I think if we were old-fashioned women, we would be saying she should be burned as a witch, basically. And I think it’s a tribute to how far we’ve come that we’re not trashing Monica Lewinsky. Actually, I think Monica Lewinsky has a very tough time in store for her.”

The Nation ran a piece called “In Defense of Monica,” by Jennifer Baumgardner and Amelia Richards, the authors of ManifestA: Young Women, Feminism, and the Future. They made a point to write: “We want to raise our voices not to decry or condescend to her but support her in the name of feminism.”

In June of 1999, when Lewinsky famously gave an interview to Barbara Walters, Ms. ran a three-part series featuring feminist writers’ reaction to the spectacle. In Susan Jane Gilman’s “Oral Report,” she writes that the Lewinsky situation is a lose-lose situation for feminists, eventually going in for the kill: “For a woman who claimed to have little self-respect, Lewinsky’s narcissism was breathtaking… What can a feminist say about a young woman who feels so entitled that she sees herself as being on equal footing with the president?” In “The Beauty and the Brains,” Susie Bright worships at Monica’s feet, wondering about her future: “Monica’s beauty will continue to dazzle those around her for another decade or two — longer, if she drops the disingenuous fat-girl crap — but what will become of her native intelligence? What will happen to her neglected education, to her smarts that have been shamed and condescended to?”

Dear Monica,” by Abiola Wendy Abrams, is the most optimistic: “You have forced a much-needed national debate about women and sexuality. Your flagrant comfort with your sexual self is, to me, completely and unconditionally feminist. Your story is moving the discourse of feminism, stagnant for so long, forward. We are openly discussing women and sex and power.”

In its way, Ms. was in the tank for Lewinsky. Where prominent feminist thinkers and leftist women with big platforms went downhill was in the case of the New York Times. As Amanda Hess writes in Slate, Maureen Dowd got a Pulitzer for obsessively writing about the bimbo Monica, and Gloria Steinem wandered into her own mess with an op-ed from 1998, “Why Feminists Support Clinton.” But where Steinem’s work got messy wasn’t regarding Lewinsky, per se. Her take on the situation is that it was mutual: “It also explains why the news media’s obsession with sex qua sex is offensive to some, titillating to many and beside the point to almost everybody. Like most feminists, most Americans become concerned about sexual behavior when someone’s will has been violated; that is, when ‘no’ hasn’t been accepted as an answer.”

The excerpt from the Times piece also ends right about there, at least in the online cache. In the full text, Steinem argues in circles about why Bill Clinton is not a sexual harasser in the workplace and why Paula Jones’ accusation was without merit.

In the wake of Lewinsky’s new interview, there are more and more stories about the whole incident and what it all means. Feminist journalists who were young when Clinton made a mess in the first place have smart takes on what Lewinsky’s experience means to women, when it comes to power, politics, and sex. Rebecca Traister has a lengthy piece in The New Republic about how Lewinsky and probable presidential candidate Hillary Clinton will always be, in some way, tied to each other: “They each became cartoons of dismissible femininity — the sexually defined naïf and the calculating, sexless aggressor, characters who illustrated the ways that sex — sex that’s had by men as well — always redounds negatively on women. These two women weren’t at odds; they were in it together.” Molly Lambert at Grantland writes about the new generation of young women whose sexuality is under attack in the aftermath of scandal — in this case Donald Sterling’s paramour V. Stiviano and her ever-present visor.

But perhaps it’s The Guardian‘s Megan Carpentier who has the clearest view on what Monica means in 2014, and that’s this: “She was assigned her role in the world based on some very old dichotomies — bad girl, slut, mistress — that only ever apply to women, and she became, as she wrote, ‘a social canvas on which anybody could project their confusion about women, sex, infidelity, politics, and body issues.'” The confusion remains, clearly. Otherwise, why would we care?