A lot of things from the 90s look different in the rear-view mirror. Friends doesn’t seem half as funny as we’d thought, that dark lipstick isn’t nearly as cool as we’d hoped, and Monica Lewinsky isn’t quite the villain we were sure she was. Thanks to our pussy-grabbing, Pocahontas-slurring commander-in-chief, we’re no longer living in a time when we expect our president to comport himself with dignity and poise. But in 1996, we were still reeling from losing O.J. Simpson as a national hero; we weren’t remotely ready to view President Bill Clinton as a sexual predator. In those days, the Anita Hills and Paula Joneses were largely cast as nuisances if not outright liars. Paradoxically, Monica Lewinsky was crowned biggest troublemaker at all – for telling the truth.
Things are different today, though. This is the #MeToo Age, and the only public split seems to be between those taking a perverse pleasure in watching icons like Weinstein and Spacey fall and those who are legitimately hurt by hearing apologies from beloved figures like John Lasseter and Charlie Rose. It has taken until 2017, after we have accepted that our presidents will not necessarily act presidential and our heroes will not necessarily act heroic, to begin the long-overdue reframing of Monica Lewinsky.
Today, Lewinsky tweeted out an edit to HLN’s promo for its upcoming special:
fixed it for you. you’re welcome. pic.twitter.com/h4iVKGwM1g
— Monica Lewinsky (@MonicaLewinsky) November 28, 2017
Five hours and twelve thousand “likes” later, the world (or at least the Twittersphere) is all about viewing the “Monica Lewinsky Scandal” through 2017’s eyes:
Much better, thank you and sorry everyone is so stupid and mean.
— Vix Maren (@VixMaren) November 29, 2017
Recently had to stand up to a manipulative dude. Kept you in mind as inspiration – it helped. That’s your legacy for me.
— Colette (@songofcolette) November 29, 2017
You were a young woman in your early 20’s. He was 20 yrs. older, the President of the United States and a known predator. Regardless of what happened, you never did nor do you now deserve the degree of shaming to which you have been subjected to. Period. Keep standing strong.
— Lynda Fusco DeRosa (@mrsderosa) November 29, 2017
For years, the only debates about Monica Lewinsky was whether her involvement with Bill Clinton were “forgivable”; I remember no TV talking heads opining on whether she’d been victimized. From all accounts, including, most importantly, Lewinsky’s own, her relationship with Clinton had been consensual. However, for an event that received unprecedented media attention and public debate, the lack of talk over that consent is – at least in retrospect – disturbing. Had Lewinsky been a bit younger, her willingness to enter into a sexual relationship with an adult would have been immaterial. The entire “relationship” would have been a sexual assault, no matter how she felt about it. Furthermore, a more dramatic imbalance of power could barely have existed than POTUS versus intern; yet, words like “harassment,” “predator,” or “misconduct,” were pushed aside by lurid details, personal insults, and slut-shaming. The Clinton impeachment is a shameful part of American history – but most shameful of all is that through months of investigations, special prosecutors, press conferences, and Congressional inquiries, we never even considered whether Monica Lewinsky had been victimized. The fact that she wasn’t even old enough to rent a car, while Clinton was double her age and had an apparent history of sexual harassment makes it far worse.
I make no judgments about the Lewinsky-Clinton affair. None of us has any real way of understanding the dynamics of that relationship, no matter how much we read up on it. What’s important, though, isn’t the former president and his former intern – but rather, how we react to these stories. When we hear about a sexual relationship between a very young woman and her much older, much more powerful boss, we should be asking questions about consent. We didn’t then, but we need to now. If we had realized that the first time we were listening to Green Day and wearing flannel, we might have prevented some of the damage the Spaceys, O’Reillys, and Weinsteins have inflicted. Clinging to the story of Monica-Lewinsky-as-American-villain is just as outdated as asking your hairdresser for “the Rachel,” and it’s time we all face it.
This is an opinion piece. The views expressed in this article are those of just the author.