By Jorge Castorena, Managing Editor
Monica Lewinsky, yes, as in the thorn in the side of 90s America (and the Clintons), is in the media spotlight once again. But this time she is not at the center of a sex scandal of presidential proportions; Lewinsky is now at the center of a social cause, breaking over a decade of silence to talk to us about cyberbullying.
Last week, Lewinsky was featured in her very own TED Talk in which she discusses her affair with Bill Clinton and the subsequent media maelstrom (and field day). The shame of the aftermath, she says, “made life almost unbearable.” Her talk, now on its way to two million views, is titled “The Price of Shame,” and at the heart of it is a call to action for us to stop publicly shaming people via media, chiefly the Internet, as the humiliation of it can become a matter of life or death.
And thus, the woman who had an affair with the President of the United States [and got caught] reintroduces herself to the world as an anti-cyberbullying activist.
I have several problems with this rebranding.
To be fair, the media is cruel. She holds that she was possibly “the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet” and that the shame had her suicidal. As she talks about it, her voice breaks, describing how her mother made her “shower with the door open” for fear that her daughter might try to take her life, all because of the public shame – the cyberbullying – she underwent. I truly was very sorry to hear that.
Where I begin to have a problem with the whole thing is when Lewinsky compares herself to Tyler Clementi, a freshman from Rutgers University who in 2010 committed suicide shortly after a video (which he didn’t know was being filmed) of him kissing another man was posted on social media. The tragedy brought national media attention to the issue of cyberbullying, but most especially to the public shaming of the LGBTQ community. Lewinsky also refers to the recent leaks of celebrity nude photos (think Jennifer Lawrence) as another severe case of cyberbullying.
What does Monica Lewinsky have to do with Tyler Clementi, the LGBTQ community or Jennifer Lawrence?
Nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I’m sorry, Monica, but a) you had an affair b) with the President of the United States of America and c) you both lied about it. It may have gone too far, yes, but these were the reasons you were shamed (not that that justifies the shaming).
In Clementi’s case, he was shamed for something having to do with identity and sexual preference, which some would argue are out of his control; in Lawrence’s case, or so the argument goes, she is free to do as she pleases within the context of her relationship with her boyfriend and this privacy was violated. In Lewinsky’s case, we know for sure it was something that she could control (she has referred to the affair as consensual), it had nothing to do with identity or sexual preference and it was an extra-marital affair.
And that’s another thing. She starts out her speech with a question to the audience, “Who didn’t make a mistake or do something they regretted when they were 22?” She then downplays and helps her audience relate by saying that her young girl’s mistake was simply falling in love with her boss.
I’m sorry, Monica, but your boss just so happened to be, well, the President of the United States of America, and the moment you decided to have an affair with him, you kissed your right to privacy goodbye (if you’ll pardon the pun). It’s a little hard to top that, not to mention downplay it.
This seems to me a classic case of rebranding, though I’m not putting into question whether it is genuine or not (and the election-season timing of it is a topic for another article). She says in her video that it was “time to take back [her] narrative.” The Lewinsky narrative, but let’s call it brand, was one of ridicule and linked to sexual scandal. But with an emotional appeal, she diverts our attention from the scandal that was so last century and focuses us on cyberbullying.
We forget about the promiscuous White House intern, and we meet a new Monica who overcame the torement of public himiliation; a Monica who now encourages other cyberbullying-victims that they, too, can overcome.
Lewinsky’s new cause seems to already be having effects on her image. High-profile critics like David Letterman and Bill Maher have already expressed remorse about the way they talked about Lewinsky after 1998.
Whether her arguments are well-grounded or not, I have to admit that she has a point. When I first heard about Lewinsky’s new campaign, I thought it was ridiculous. But her passionate speech made me realize that Lewinsky is, in effect, a human being, with brokenness and a soul, and she, of all people, convicted me to be more compassionate.
And compassionate is something generally no one, at least not publicly, has been in regards to Lewinsky for the past 17 years. We forgave Bill because we saw him do so much more than just have an affair (not that that makes the affair any less of a problem) . But the tension with Monica is that even now, all we know of her is that she had an affair, she had a really hard time with shame and she hates cyberbullying.
Of course, no one for any reason should ever be driven into depression, much less to take their own lives, because of the “blood sport” that public shaming has become (to use Lewinsky’s words). Though I don’t really follow her logic, I applaud Lewinsky for using her household name to bring attention to a serious issue, even if it does conveniently rebuild her image along the way.