When the world first heard of the President’s sex scandal in 1998, the media immediately chose to paint Lewinsky as the villain in the story. She was branded as a young seductress who lured the president down a sinful path. However, in retrospect, both the media and public were the cause for this woman’s downfall, from which she is only recovering from now.
Perhaps the public’s reaction in 1998 is significant in highlighting our culture’s understanding and tolerance of sex. Even though ideas and stigmas about sexual liberation in the late 90s were becoming rapidly more progressive, the silent majority’s views remained unchanged from social Conservatism, the aftermath of Nixon’s policies of the 1970s. Lewinsky herself wrote in her Vanity Fair article that she became ‘a social canvas on which anybody could project their confusion about women, sex, infidelity, politics, and body issues.’ This article, written in 2014, signaled Lewinsky’s reemergence into the public sphere, which along with her poignant TED talk, gave her a much-deserved platform to take back some control of the narrative.
Lewinsky has also become an anti-bullying advocate since her return to public view, with her involvement in a PSA bringing attention to the problems of cyber-bullying. This cause is particularly important to Lewinsky, since when the scandal was first publicized the internet revolution was occurring simultaneously, meaning that she was one of the first victims of online bullying. It was due to her strong public presence that forced both the media and public to reevaluate their treatment of Lewinsky, with many apologizing for the abusive comments and harsh judgements they made when the story first broke. TV host David Letterman publicly apologised for his relentless jokes made when the story first came to light, after Lewinsky’s Vanity Fair article was published.
When the MeToo movement rose to prominence in 2017, the scandal’s narrative shifted again with Lewinsky becoming a symbol of how the Democratic Party and Liberals misunderstood Feminism back in 1998. Many used Lewinsky’s statement that the relationship was consensual as a way to ignore the obvious power disparity between the two – which we are only now acknowledging since our awareness of the relationship between consent and power has improved.
The narrative has once again changed with the recent release of Ryan Murphy’s third season of American Crime Story, which retells the events of the scandal, leading up to Clinton’s impeachment trial. This retelling is significantly poignant due to Lewinsky’s heavy involvement in the production of the show as an executive producer. Murphy was insistent on having Ms Lewinsky play a large part in the series as well as profiting from it. The show has been commended for its portrayal of the rampant sexism which occurred after the events as well as the series’ primarily female perspective. However, instead of showing women to be the victim, in this production, female characters are depicted as flawed people, thereby dealing with the subject matter in a realistic way. It is easy now to view the events as a one-sided affair out of remorse for the public and media treatment, although Murphy does well to keep the story authentic.
If Lewinsky really is the ultimate tragic figure, is she worth our sympathy? In her Vanity Fair essay Lewinsky states herself that she has struggled with her own sense of ‘agency versus victimhood’. Ultimately, both her agency and victimhood should be assessed separately, her sexuality being a personal choice that she shouldn’t be humiliated and her victimhood is a product of the American media and the media consumer having a fascination with both scandals and sex.
Over the past 20 years the way in which we react to sex scandals has shifted drastically, from ‘slut-shaming’ humiliation to extreme scrutiny of any sexual harassment accusations. This is testament to how far the feminist cause has come in recent history, as well as our awareness of media manipulation. Although the humiliation caused to Lewinsky cannot be forgotten, the events that occurred after the scandal are significant in showing our ethical development concerning media consumption, as well as aiding our awareness of gossip journalism, which now takes its form as overly familiar ’fake news’.