Monica Lewinsky ’95 is a Lewis & Clark alum and a social activist. When you hear her name, however, there is an indisputable connotation that immediately comes to mind: one of a woman publicly disgraced and humiliated.
In a new documentary titled “15 Minutes of Shame,” Lewinsky, alongside Max Joseph of the TV show “Catfish,” aims to look at the culture of public shaming. Lewinsky, who was the center of a media frenzy for years, is no stranger to what it is like to be publicly humiliated. Lewinsky had an affair with President Bill Clinton during his time in office. When the affair was made public, she received a tremendous amount of public backlash. While Lewinsky has said that while she does think she was taken advantage of by her boss, the real “abuse” came in the aftermath, when she was forced to take the fall to protect his position. Recently, she has begun drawing from those experiences to become an anti-bullying advocate.
Lewinsky has given us an opportunity to re-examine her legacy. Did she deserve the public shaming that she received?
In the context of the #MeToo movement and Donald Trump’s presidency, it is important to look at the double standard that exists in this situation. Lewinsky was 22 years old at the time of the scandal, while Clinton was 49. That age difference alone is concerning. It gets worse when you consider that Clinton was in the highest position of power this country has to offer, while Lewinsky was merely an intern.
The backlash that Lewinsky faced was misogynistic and unnecessary. A much younger woman in a subordinate position to the most powerful man in the U.S. did not deserve to be ridiculed and have her personal life torn apart. In an essay for Vanity Fair in 2014, she detailed job interviews that were derailed by the connotation attached to her name. She says that with every date she goes on she experiences “1998 whiplash,” a testament to how this scandal has deeply impacted her professional and personal life. She never should have been put in this position because she was involved with a man who should have known better.
The double standard that exists during this era of Donald Trump, who has been called out and investigated for paying off porn stars and having inappropriate contact with many women, is ironic. The fact that our male presidents have gotten away with inappropriate conduct time after time is wrong in itself. But the fact that the women involved (Stormy Daniels in particular) have had to face the barrage of hateful comments and media attention is indicative of the misogyny that plagues not just our political system, but our society as a whole.
It is commendable that Lewinsky is taking all of this negative media attention and using it to create a positive change. However, it was not easy to get there. After years of trying to figure out what to do next, moving across the country and out of the country, and going a decade without speaking to the media, she has found a way to use her story for good. “15 Minutes of Shame” is one huge step towards that, among her other anti-bullying efforts, including a “Goodness Bot” on Twitter, which aims to spread positivity on social media, and other anti-bullying PSAs.
We owe Lewinsky an apology for how our culture of name-calling and bullying has treated her. The best way to right this wrong is to reverse her legacy. Next time you hear Lewinsky’s name, try not to think of a scandal or a disgraced woman. Instead, try to reframe your image into that of a woman standing up against an oppressive system and trying to make the world a more positive place. We at least owe her that.