The branding and rebranding of Monica Lewinsky

Syndicated columnistMay 13, 2014 

Amanda Hess Monica Lewinsky has spoken. Or more accurately, she will speak, by way of a personal essay in the June issue of Vanity Fair looking back on her relationship in the ’90s with President Bill Clinton. (Oh — you hadn’t heard?).

So far, Lewinsky has not said much — the magazine teased just a few short blurbs of her forthcoming piece, plus a stylish pic of Monica in repose under the headline “Shame and Survival” — but let’s be honest: Most readers who will eagerly click through to this “exclusive” don’t care what she actually has to say.

Lewinsky has dared to appear in public and open her mouth, and that’s enough to send the Internet back into a Clinton-era time warp of free-association intern-shaming: Monica Lewinsky is an oral-sex-having (“Don’t blow your chance to read about Monica Lewinsky”), gold-digging (“‘It’s time to burn the beret and bury the blue dress,’ says the girl who’s been cashing in on them since ’98”), total has-been (“16 years ago! Your 15 minutes were up a long time ago!”).

And what else would we have Monica Lewinsky do? In the years after the scandal, Lewinsky traveled from London to Los Angeles to New York to Portland, earning a master’s degree in social psychology at the London School of Economics, then hunting in vain for communications and branding gigs with a focus on charitable giving. But “because of what potential employers so tactfully referred to as my ‘history,’” she writes in the snippet Vanity Fair has released, “I was never ‘quite right’ for the position. In some cases, I was right for all the wrong reasons, as in ‘Of course, your job would require you to attend our events.’ And, of course, these would be events at which press would be in attendance.” Lewinsky is 40 years old, but she’s been allowed just one career track — disgraced former mistress — and now we’re dinging her for attempting to make a living from it. (Side note: Don’t you just love Bill Clinton? What a rock star.)

When we talk about relationships between superiors and their workers, we often focus on the power differential. (Did Clinton’s position over Lewinsky compel her to literally drop to her knees?) In what I’ve seen of the piece, Lewinsky is adamant that her relationship with Clinton was consensual, and that the extreme gulf in power between a president and an intern revealed itself after the fact. “Sure, my boss took advantage of me, but I will always remain firm on this point: It was a consensual relationship. Any ‘abuse’ came in the aftermath, when I was made a scapegoat in order to protect his powerful position,” Lewinsky writes. “The Clinton administration, the special prosecutor’s minions, the political operatives on both sides of the aisle, and the media were able to brand me. And that brand stuck, in part because it was imbued with power.”

While powerful men have the ability to rebound from their “indiscretions” and secure their fortunes, young women — who are often singled out for sexual attention at a time when they have little career experience and even less cash — can be branded forever by the incident. As Bill Clinton rakes in cash off of book deals and speaking engagements like any other former president, Lewinsky is left to feed on scraps from the scandal.

While she may forever be a national joke, the Vanity Fair piece reveals that Lewinsky is clearly a sharp and funny woman, as evidenced by her quibble with her appearance in the Beyonce song “Partition”: “Thanks, Beyonce,” she writes, “but if we’re verbing, I think you meant ‘Bill Clinton’d all on my gown,’ not ‘Monica Lewinsky’d.’” She’s right, but Beyonce’s slip-up is understandable: We’re still living in a world where women are defined by the sex they have, while men are defined by, you know, other things they say and do. Now, Lewinsky is attempting to mine an alternate angle on her scandal to forge a different career path: As she writes in Vanity Fair, “thanks to the Drudge Report, I was “possibly the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.” Her current goal “is to get involved with efforts on behalf of victims of online humiliation and harassment and to start speaking on this topic in public forums.”

I hope she is paid handsomely for her time.

Amanda Hess is a writer and editor in Los Angeles for Slate. She blogs for DoubleX on sex, science and health. Tweet at her @amandahess.

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