Monica Lewinsky has been back in the headlines in this, the year of our Lord, 2021. It’s not completely surprising nor unreasonable that she’s returned to public consciousness and the pop cultural zeitgeist given the current airing of the limited series Impeachment: American Crime Story (on which she is also a producer) and the release of her HBO Max/Crave documentary 15 Minutes of Shame. Shame is something with which Monica is intimately familiar, having gone from private citizen to the world’s most infamous intern and perpetual punchline in the blink of an eye after her affair with then-President Bill Clinton was exposed in 1998.
But the lion’s share of shame should really be reserved for the media, pundits, late night talk show hosts, and other vultures who viciously fed off of and profited from the worst moment of a young woman’s life, a 22-year-old ultimately taken advantage of by her much older and incomprehensibly more powerful employer with a shady (at best) track record with the opposite sex. Looking back at the clips from The Late Show With David Letterman, Saturday Night Live and particularly The Tonight Show With Jay Leno, from that period is like watching event after event at the Cringe Olympics with each host competing to be the biggest asshole. The jokes have aged about as well as a glass of milk left out in the hot sun and it’s important that history not be kind to the casual cruelty, stunning sexism, extreme misogyny, and blatant fatphobia that, at the time, passed as entertainment.
The following are a few examples of the jokes made at Monica’s expense. On March 3, 1999 when Monica was giving her first sit-down interview to Barbara Walters, Jay Leno opened his show with “Happy Monica Day! Is it a federal holiday? Are all zippers at half-mast?” Commenting on her hairstyle in said interview he remarked, “Did you see Monica’s new hairdo? All slicked back with that hair gel? At least I think it was hair gel.” Another bit had Jay showing the audience a cover of a fake Dr. Seuss-style book called “The Slut in the Hat” referring to Monica’s infamous beret and playing off The Cat in the Hat. David Letterman referred to Monica Lewinksy as “just a kid out of college looking for a good job at the White House…and apparently so was Clinton” referencing the fact that Monica performed fellatio on the Commander-in-Chief. In another bit, during one of his famous Top Ten lists titled “Top 10 Possible First Lines in Monica Lewinsky’s Book” he included entries like “Me and My Big Mouth,” “I Knew Someday I’d Go Down in History” and “Does This Font Make Me Look Fat?” Because when Monica wasn’t being made fun of for being a “slut” she was being mercilessly mocked for her size. Jay Leno, himself not exactly regarded as the poster child for fitness, once consolidated slut and fat-shaming into one joke saying, “Monica Lewinsky has gained back all the weight she lost last year…In fact, she told reporters she was even considering having her jaw wired shut, but then, nah — she didn’t want to give up her sex life.” Oof.
Bill Clinton during that time period, meanwhile, the grown-ass married man and figure in the clear position of power in the relationship, usually escaped with jokes about him being a dirty old dog or having a wandering eye, or being afraid of/hating his wife because let’s find another way to pin this mess on a woman instead of the man!
To his credit, towards the end of his late night reign, David Letterman expressed remorse for the part he played in the public pile-on of Monica, admitting to Barbara Walters that he made “relentless jokes about the poor woman” adding, “I feel bad about my role in pushing the humiliation to the point of suffocation.”
And suffocating it was. In her brilliant 2015 Ted Talk, The Price of Shame, which has been viewed more than 20 million times, Monica speaks eloquently about that painful period in her life saying, “the public humiliation was excruciating. Life was almost unbearable.” Monica had been living a relative quiet life for years, looking to exist under the radar when, in 2010, the suicide of Rutgers University student Tyler Clementi acted as the catalyst for her to find new purpose as an anti-bullying and anti-public shaming advocate. Tyler was 18-years-old when he was secretly filmed on webcam by his roommate being intimate with another man. Three days later Tyler, cloaked in shame, jumped off a bridge to his death. Monica says the tragedy caused her to “recontextualize” her own experience with bullying and public shaming and how she was treated by the world at large, admitting she too, had contemplated suicide during the thick of it.
There’s no denying Monica bore the brunt of the scandal, a scandal that’s commonly referred to as “The Monica Lewinsky Scandal” rather than “The Bill Clinton Scandal” or even “The Clinton/Lewinsky Scandal.” As recently as 2018 Time magazine uploaded a video to their YouTube page commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Clinton impeachment, titling it “The Monica Lewinsky Scandal: A Visual Timeline of the Events 20 Years Later.” I suppose it’s not all that surprising from a magazine that often referred to Brock Turner as “Stanford swimmer” instead of “accused rapist.”
Pop culture has referenced the Clinton/Lewinksy affair countlessly in the years since the scandal broke, but more often than not, it’s Monica Lewinsky’s name that’s dropped instead of Bill Clinton’s. Monica is referenced in more than 100 rap songs and even Beyoncé called her out in the 2013 song “Partition,” singing “he popped all my buttons and he ripped my blouse, he Monica Lewinksy’d all over my gown” referencing the dress allegedly stained with presidential DNA that Monica infamously kept. Listen, I love you B and I certainly don’t want the Beyhive after me, but why the hell wasn’t the lyric, “he Bill Clinton’d all over my gown?” because that most certainly wasn’t Monica’s dried semen on that dress.
Did Monica Lewinksy make mistakes? Yes, and she’s never shied away from that. But let’s also not forget she was just 22 when this all went down. Bill Clinton was 52. Let’s direct the bulk of the responsibility and condemnation in that direction going forward, shall we? Because 22-year-olds do some seriously stupid shit. Christ, I got engaged when I was 22. How’s that for stupid? But that shit shouldn’t follow me around for the rest of my life!
If, in 2021, we’re looking back with shame and embarrassment about how terribly and unfairly female celebrities like Britney Spears were treated in the lawless wasteland and gossip hellscape that was the late ’90s and early 2000’s, we also need to take a good hard look at how Monica Lewinksky, who has somehow not only emerged a thoughtful, eloquent, and compassionate advocate, but also someone with a healthy sense of humour about herself, was treated, and offer this woman a sincere apology. I’m looking at you, Jay Leno.