Is Monica Lewinsky a Feminist Icon?

Monica Lewinsky is a heroine, and not just as the fictional subject of a web video series. Instead, as she takes tentative steps back into the public eye, she may be emerging as an icon for a younger generation of feminists, at least according to a long profile by Jessica Bennett in the New York Times in conjunction with Lewinsky’s well-received TED Talk on cyber-bullying last week.

The overwhelmingly positive reaction to both the talk and the article has, in some ways, been surprising. This is not just the product of the culture finally giving Lewinsky a second chance. Nor is it even because journalists are, as Bennett notes, contrite about their juvenile or judgmental reactions to l’affaire Lewinsky back in 1998: “Feminists who had stayed silent on the first go-round were suddenly defending her, using terms like ‘slut-shaming’ and ‘media gender bias’ to do it.”

Rather, many are actually elevating the returned-to-the-spotlight Lewinsky to a sort of postmodern heroine status. Now, she’s a survivor. Bennet’s piece shows us what happens after Lewinsky stops by the play SLUT and makes her presence known:

“A line of girls soon approached. ‘Thank you for being here,” said a teenager in a striped shirt and gold hoop earrings. She asked if she could take a photo, and Ms. Lewinsky winced a little, then politely told her no. “I totally understand,” the girl said.

When I spoke to Bennett on the phone, she said that anecdotally, this happened several times during her time with Lewinsky. Young women were flocking to the once-infamous intern, and not in a “gawking, celebrity” way. They wanted to shake her hand and acknowledge her for taking a stand against slut-shaming — which, as Bennett notes, is “something they face daily.”

As Lewinsky describes it in her TED Talk, “The Price of Shame,” she was assaulted by a mob of “virtual stone-throwers.” Thanks to the Drudge Report’s relentless hammering of the scandal, she now sees herself as “patient zero” in a new era of Internet bullying, and thanks to Kenneth Starr, her private conversations were slapped up for the public to peruse. In her talk, Lewinsky mentions leaked celebrity nude pics, Tyler Clementi’s tragic suicide, and the hacking of Snapchat as examples of an economy of shame, where others’ humiliation and desperation is a moneymaker, or least an attention grabber. “The more shame, the more clicks, the more clicks, the more advertising dollars,” Lewinsky says. “The more we click, the more numb we get to the human lives behind it.” To this last point, certainly, she can attest. “Tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo,” Lewinsky says, reciting the names she was called in the media. ” I was seen by many, actually known by few.”

It’s this message that is getting through to young women who live so much of their lives in the virtual space. To them, perhaps, the idea that there’s a deeper Monica beneath the beret photos is natural — since there’s a deeper version of themselves behind Snapchat or awful Facebook gossip, flattering selfies or unflattering rumors. Both the recent whisper that Lewinsky is trying to hurt Hillary Clinton’s nascent presidential bid by speaking out now and the old idea that one can either defend the Clintons as subjects of a witch hunt or defend Lewinsky seem to have evaporated. Bennett thinks that a lot of women who like Lewinsky now are probably future Hillary voters, and see no contradiction between the two positions. In fact, it occurs to me that the discussion about media gender bias that Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2008 sparked might also, ironically, have enabled a reconsideration of media treatment of Lewinsky ten years prior.

In the “brave new world” of technology that Lewinsky describes, social media used to both create shame and to transcend it. As always with Monica, I keep thinking of the absolutely shame-proof Kim Kardashian, and how it would almost be impossible to shame Lewinsky to the same extent in a post-Kardashian world. “Young people are no longer scandalized by this type of narrative,” says Bennett. In fact, their reaction is more likely to be: “It’s crazy this has stayed with her for so long.” Lewinsky is being claimed by the generation that knows SlutWalks and sexy selfies, that understands both online bullying and oversharing.

Bennett thinks Lewinsky was caught between eras. “It was before the era where there was the space to fight back against the dominating media narrative,” she says. “But it happened late enough that her story could break online and she could go from anonymous to the most humiliated person in the world in span of 24 hours.”

While I find Lewinsky’s argument about the economic incentives for shame smart and cogent, and I am glad she calls herself a feminist, I’m not quite ready to label her a feminist hero before I see what she does next. Her proposed solution —”click with compassion” — leaves me wanting more. Yet I have plenty of sympathy for Lewinsky, someone who was treated abominably by the media and used as a political pawn. I’m happy she’s using her experience to reclaim her narrative, but more importantly to speak up on behalf of cyberbully victims.

And her “vanguard of bullying victims” narrative has caught on because it feels true. As a barometer of feminist change, Lewinsky is undeniably compelling. The New York Times, which ran (and presumably profited off of) Maureen Dowd’s series of columns calling Lewinsky “predatory” among other uncharitable things, is now avidly promoting Bennett’s piece that takes the wrongness of that position as a given. Meanwhile, The Washington Post, which also fed on the frenzy in 1998, is urging everyone to listen to Lewinsky. In fact, reporter Chris Cilizza is doing some real hand-wringing about reconciling his values as a political reporter with his contempt for bullying.

In her TED Talk, Lewinsky discusses the difference between “speaking up with intention vs. speaking up for attention.” Maybe, at long last, at least some members of the media have learned how to eschew the latter in favor of the former. It would be nice if those who trade in online harassment would do the same.