My hope was sparked this week that we just might have a more nuanced conversation about gender and the presidency than we did last time Hillary Clinton ran. The reason for this (admittedly vain) optimism was—perhaps perversely—Monica Lewinsky’s 4,000-word Vanity Fair piece about the aftermath of her self-described “mutual relationship” with Hillary Clinton’s husband, former President Bill Clinton.
No, details of the affair itself don’t have any bearing on Clinton’s qualifications as a still-imaginary 2016 candidate for the White House. But reckoning with what happened two decades ago to both Lewinsky and to Hillary Clinton—in the press, in feminist discourse, in popular culture, and in the American imagination—is very relevant to how we think and talk about women, sex, and power, and those issues will in turn be central to how we understand Clinton’s next potential political campaign.
Let’s face it: The Lewinsky story was going to come up. For the past year, Republicans have been aching to gather millennials—too young to remember the dirty details—round the campfire and tell them tales of cigars and blue dresses. Nevermind that millennials—too young to be remotely shocked by the sexual misdeeds of politicians—are unlikely to give a rat’s ass. But the facts of Clinton’s liaison with Lewinsky remain; it was complicated, ugly. And if his wife runs for president, the right is going to make hay of her husband’s fraught legacy of alleged sexual impropriety and harassment.
It’s vastly preferable to have this conversation kicked off in earnest by Lewinsky, a person who has more right than anyone—and certainly more right than any of the Republicans who once wielded her as a weapon and now shake their curly heads sorrowfully over the sexual predation she suffered—to offer her take on the events of two decades ago.
Lewinsky’s piece, flawed but fascinating, is ostensibly framed around her desire to address a culture of public bullying which she feels has only gotten worse in the years since she was put in the online stocks by Matt Drudge. Her concern was specifically spurred, she writes, by the 2010 suicide of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers student who killed himself after he was videod kissing another man, and the kiss was livestreamed. Lewinsky correctly distinguishes her situation from Clementi’s by noting that her personal hell was “a consequence of [her] own poor choices,” but persuasively notes that for young adults, like Clementi and like herself, public shaming can be particularly crippling. “If you haven’t figured out who you are,” Lewinsky writes of being a young person at the center of a scorn storm, “it’s hard not to accept the horrible image of you created by others.”
Some critics have rightly noted that portions of Lewinsky’s story are warmed over. Despite the breathless billing, she’s not “breaking” much of a “silence,” having spilled her story to Barbara Walters and 70 million viewers, to the biographer Andrew Morton, in a documentary, and in multiple glossy magazine interviews. But in this piece, she’s arguing that her participation in this regurgitating cycle was a symptom of the public trauma she suffered; her thrashing as a young person left her paralyzed in middle age, “stuck,” as she puts it.
There are certainly inconsistencies in her argument about her attempts to escape notoriety. Lewinsky writes of enjoying the anonymity of life as a graduate student in London, but then returns to the U.S, to look for a job in “creative communications” or “branding,” jobs she’s oddly surprised to discover will involve engagement with the press. She complains that in one interview for a branding position, she is asked, “If you were a brand, which brand would you be?” It was surely a tricky question for a woman whose name has been made grotesquely synonymous with oral sex, but also one she might easily have evaded by not pursuing a job in branding.
She’s also a little disingenuous about the timing of her piece with regard to Hillary Clinton’s presidential timetable, writing of how she remained silent in 2008 and 2012. First of all, Clementi—whose suicide Lewinsky said spurred her re-evaluation of her past and future mission—died after 2008. As for 2012, it’s hard to imagine that Lewinsky would have made even a smidgen of impact on the reelection campaign of Barack Obama. She presents herself as a “conscientious Democrat,” aware that she can be used as a tool by both left and right. She writes that she wishes the Clintons “no ill” and also of how, like most Americans, she’s been thinking a lot about Hillary and about “the fact that we might finally have a woman in the White House.”
Right. Monica Lewinsky is writing this piece in Vanity Fair because she and the editors of Vanity Fair presume that Hillary Clinton is about to run for president again. And fair enough! Finally having a woman in the White House is a knotty project, two centuries in the making, all hoo-ha about “inevitability” to the contrary. In fact, the impulse, of both Lewinksy and her editors, to make it even knottier might be the only inevitable thing about it.
But funnily enough, in offering a refresher on her own story—one surely intended to sell magazines to Hillary-haters everywhere—Lewinsky is exposing many of the dynamics that have stood so uncomfortably between women and power for so very long.
Her tale covers some of the basics of her dalliance with Bill Clinton, a relationship she felt at the time was “an authentic connection, with emotional intimacy.” She recounts being cornered by the FBI at the Pentagon City Mall; she describes years of public degradation, how she is cited—always in connection to a sex act—by Eminem and Miley Cyrus and Beyoncé, how she was asked on stage by an interviewer in 2001, “How does it feel to be America’s premier blow job queen?”
The picture she paints is of a voracious press, paparazzi outside her door, a punishing cycle of unremitting attention only to her sexuality, a sexuality that is always cast negatively—as loose or brainless or bad. Lewinsky does not detail how the media not only managed to forgive her sex partner but credit him with an extra layer of dashing appeal. “Forget the … down-in-the-mouth neo-Puritanism of the op-ed tumbrel drivers, and see him instead as his guests do,” then–New Yorker editor Tina Brown wrote of Bill Clinton post-affair, “a man in a dinner jacket with more heat than any star in the room.”
Lewinsky is pretty peeved at feminists, though the direction of her ire is a little wonky. She’s not wrong that feminist exchanges got clogged up and confused around Bill Clinton. In the years after Anita Hill’s testimony against Clarence Thomas helped to hammer the meaning of the term “sexual harassment” into an American consciousness, feminists—who loved Bill Clinton, the president who’d signed the Family and Medical Leave Act, was friendly to reproductive rights, put Ruth Bader Ginsburg on the Supreme Court, and had a dazzlingly accomplished wife and partner—stayed comparatively silent when he was accused of sexual harassment by Paula Jones and was discovered having had a relationship with the White House intern. “If anything, it sounds like she put the moves on him,” said Backlash author Susan Faludi of the Lewinsky affair at the time, an assessment that wasn’t wrong, but which did not account for the situation’s more complex power dynamics.
“The movement’s leaders failed in articulating a position that was not essentially anti-woman during the witch hunt of 1998,” Lewinsky writes. But the specifics of her Vanity Fair critique are not aimed at “movement leaders.” She is instead focused on a gathering of New York women, including Fear of Flying author Erica Jong, clothing designer Nicole Miller, and The Morning After author Katie Roiphe, assembled in 1998 by The New York Observer, a famously irreverent weekly newspaper. She is right that these women had a conversation about her that was fundamentally mean. But they were hardly the leaders of W.I.T.C.H. Or even of NOW. (If Lewinsky wants to accuse Roiphe of “setting the movement back” by calling her unpretty, she should really take a number.)
And then there’s Hillary. Earlier this year, the papers of Clinton’s late best friend, Diane Blair, which include notes on Hillary’s reaction to the Lewinsky story, became public. From them, Lewinsky learned that Clinton blamed her own emotional unavailability for her husband’s infidelity and acknowledged to Blair that the affair was an example of “gross inappropriate behavior but it was consensual (was not a power relationship).”
Lewinsky, still anxious to defend the mutuality of her relationship with the ex-president, doesn’t prod at the complicated inconsistencies of Clinton’s take. She is hung up on Blair’s report that Clinton described Lewinsky as “a narcissistic Looney Tune.” Rather sweetly, Lewinsky expresses a flash of sisterly empathy over the exposure of Clinton’s comments to Blair—“Given my experiences with Linda Tripp, I know better than anyone what it’s like to have a conversation with a girlfriend exposed and scrutinized,” she writes —but then remembers that Clinton made her comments knowing full well that Blair was recording them for posterity. Lewinsky becomes upset. “Yes, I get it. Hillary Clinton wanted it on the record that she was lashing out at her husband’s mistress,” Lewinsky writes, “but I find her impulse to blame the Woman—not only me, but herself—troubling. And all too familiar: With every marital indiscretion that finds its way into the public sphere—many of which involve male politicians—it always seems like the woman conveniently takes the fall.”
Yes, it certainly does. And though Lewinsky’s feelings were understandably hurt by Clinton’s epithet, as I’m sure Clinton’s feelings were hurt by the fact that Lewinsky performed oral sex on her husband, in dwelling too long on the wrongs these two women may have done each other, we miss the fact that hundreds of other people, from Bill Clinton to his own overzealous Inspector Javert, to the oily Republican finger-pointers and impeachment enthusiasts, to the American media, made hundreds of choices that were terrible for Monica, terrible for Hillary, and terrible for other women.
In the fervid investigation and coverage of it, both women got hammered—as slutty and frigid, overweight and ugly, dumb and monstrous. They each became cartoons of dismissible femininity—the sexually defined naïf and the calculating, sexless aggressor, characters who illustrated the ways that sex—sex that’s had by men as well—always redounds negatively on women. These two women weren’t at odds; they were in it together.
Lewinsky writes of how her whole personhood, her whole adulthood was marked and shaped by the sexual actions she took in her early twenties. It may seem, in comparison, that Hillary—already powerful and accomplished by the time the scandal erupted—escaped comparatively unscathed; her power has surely only grown in the decades since the impeachment saga. But the legitimacy of that power is constantly questioned, by those on the right and on the left, based on the time her husband dallied with Lewinsky.
“Let’s not forget—and I’ll be brutal,” said MSNBC host Chris Matthews in January 2008, “the reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she's a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around. That's how she got to be senator from New York. … She didn't win there on her merit.”
And Lewinsky isn’t the only one who’s had a rough time of it with feminists. Clinton hasn’t always had it easy with the group assumed to be her natural base, many of whom in fact didn’t support her in 2008, in part for reasons tied up with her behavior during and after the affair.
She made “an appalling choice as a feminist,” political science professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry told me while I was reporting my book on the 2008 election. “Not that she stayed with her husband, but that she did not speak out in defense of a barely-older-than-teenage girl who was harassed by her husband. … And then she used that experience to create sympathy for herself.”
Lewinsky writes of how, in the aftermath of impeachment, she became “a social canvas on which anybody could project their confusion about women, sex, infidelity, politics, and body issues.” That’s right. It’s also another experience she shares with Hillary Clinton, who once famously wrote about herself “I’m a Rorschach test” for Americans who—since the moment she appeared with her bangs and her Coke bottle glasses and her lofty ambitions and barren cookie trays—have projected on her their greatest gendered hopes and deepest gendered anxieties.
This Vanity Fair story is not Lewinsky’s first attempt at reinvention. In the years after the affair, she designed handbags, got that graduate degree, shilled for Jenny Craig. Clinton, meanwhile, has become a senator, a secretary of state, a presidential candidate, a women’s leader; she’s cut her hair and changed her wardrobe. The reason that, no matter what they do, neither woman can ever shake this old story is that it is never-ending; and it is important. It is the story of women in the United States: marginalized, sexualized, and pitted against each other since time began in an attempt to keep them at the fringes of a power structure and very far from the top of it.