Monica Lewinsky and our Culture of Humiliation

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Mary Rose Somarriba
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Art Credit: via The Incredible Tide

Where are the feminists when it comes to Monica Lewinsky?

This question has lingered in my mind for years. Looking past all the politics, I always felt a sadness on her behalf, as a woman. What a mess, what a fall, and what a hard thing to snap back from.

Some may wonder where my sympathy for Monica Lewinsky could come from. She made some huge mistakes, and shouldn't we look down on them? Sure, I'm all for looking down on actions like interoffice infidelity, but I'm talking about the person. Should we tar and feather them and destroy their name so they can never have a future? Because that's basically what we did with Lewinsky.

Unlike Bill Clinton, Monica's name is ruined forever. Mocking her has become so mainstream that no one blinked when Beyoncé used her name as a verb to describe ejaculation in one of her recent dirtier songs "Partition." At least no one that I know of or read. Perhaps I am alone, but Beyoncé's lyrical swipe caused me to feel a wave of Monica pity all over again. And I thought Beyoncé was feminist? I can imagine someone saying, Oh c'mon, it's Monica Lewinsky. What's one more run of her name through the mud? To which I say, what's one more punch when the referee has already called the match?

These questions all resurfaced with the June issue of Vanity Fair featuring the article "Shame and Survival" by Lewinsky.

In it, she opens up about her challenges to move on over the many years since her scandal (in addition to offering a witty response to Beyoncé).I have to say, bravo to Vanity Fair for publishing it.

First, it is admirable to see Lewinsky candidly admitting her mistakes. As she describes it, "My public humiliation had been the result of my involvement with a world-renowned public figure—that is, a consequence of my own poor choices." She expands further in the piece: "I, myself, deeply regret what happened between me and President Clinton. Let me say it again: I. Myself. Deeply. Regret. What. Happened. … I was too young to understand the real-life consequences. … I look back now, shake my head in disbelief, and wonder: What was I—what were we—thinking? I would give anything to go back and rewind the tape."

In admitting her mistakes, Lewinsky's piece does something new. She could have simply joined the anti-shaming brigades which seem to say anything a woman does is excusable, but she doesn't. Instead she admits her faults while plainly showing how her public punishment did not fit the crime.

And, after reading it, it's hard not to be convinced that Lewinsky wrote this not to defend herself—but to help others who suffer from overwhelming public humiliation:

"I was … possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet. … No one, it seems, can escape the unforgiving gaze of the Internet, where gossip, half-truths, and lies take root and fester. We have created, to borrow a term from historian Nicolaus Mills, a 'culture of humiliation' that not only encourages and revels in Schadenfreude but also rewards those who humiliate others. … We may not have become a crueler society—although it sure feels as if we have—but the Internet has seismically shifted the tone of our interactions. The ease, the speed, and the distance that our electronic devices afford us can also make us colder, more glib, and less concerned about the consequences of our pranks and prejudice. Having lived humiliation in the most intimate possible way, I marvel at how willingly we have all signed on to this new way of being."

Lewinsky explains her epiphany came after she was talking with her mom about the suicide of Rutgers student Tyler Clementi. "I wished I had been able to say to him that I knew a little of how it might have felt for him to be exposed before the world. And, as hard as it is to imagine surviving it, it is possible. … My own suffering took on a different meaning. Perhaps by sharing my story, I reasoned, I might be able to help others in their darkest moments of humiliation."

She's onto something that in my view should be of grave interest to feminists. Viral humiliation has devastating effects on every victim it touches, but it seems to bring especially high costs to girls and women. Consider, for instance, that school girls who are (often unknowingly) recorded on film partaking in sexual acts face social suicide while their male counterparts gain an ego boost.

Can we change our culture if it punishes women more than men for the same crimes? Maybe not as a whole. But thought-provoking pieces like this one by Monica Lewinsky should bring us pause, if not point us in a good direction.

Photo via Tumblr