I had never heard the word “intern” before Monica Lewinsky became a news fixture. I was 15 years old when the story broke. Kids in Macon, Georgia, spent summers working in food services, playing baseball, or going to camp. We weren’t pursuing careers. I assumed “intern” was a bad word, because of the way it was being used to describe Lewinsky. A pseudonym for bitch or slut, not somebody who worked for free.
August 6 will mark two decades since Lewinsky’s testimony before a grand jury, where she was forced to recount the minutiae of her sexual relationship with Bill Clinton, the president of the United States. Since then, I’ve thought a lot about how humiliating it must have been for her to describe what occurred in front of all those strangers. One of the people questioning her reads a rote definition of “sexual relations” to Lewinsky, asks her whether she understands it, and then offers printed copies to the jury. Lewinsky is chastised for saying Mmm-hmm. She later thanks her tormentors.
What I knew about sex at that time I learned through two distinct vectors—school-based abstinence-only education, and popular culture. Shaming and blaming female sexuality while praising and celebrating male sexuality was enshrined in the media and its marketers. It informed the teen magazine quizzes that asked “Are you a Boyfriend Addict?” “Are You Obsessed with Him?” or “Are You Jealous?” It underpinned the television shows I loved, like Saved By The Bell, and Beverly Hills, 90210, in which the male characters tackled the meatier dilemmas and ogled girls, while girls groomed themselves in pursuit of male attention. And it appeared in nearly every marketing campaign I can remember, to sell shoes, school supplies, and even cereal—Honey Nut Cheerios had a 90210 marketing tie-in.
My ’90s upbringing made clear that sex was something young women were supposed to offer through their appearance, but guard against with their behavior. Monica Lewinsky evidently never got the message, and she was paying the price.
I was away at film camp the summer of the grand jury proceedings. The boys there used the news as a tool to slut-shame girls. A fitted shirt or rumored crush was all it took for them to call someone a “Monica.” We all sweated with fear, awaiting our turn. I policed my own appearance and behavior to avoid any association with the infamous intern. And I was not alone. Her story influenced a generation of women who were loathe to be like her. I know women who were mocked for having her haircut or a name that sounded like hers. We shirked blue dresses, gifting neckties, and the word “cigar.”
Lewinsky had already been the target of vitriol and criticism for nearly seven months ahead of the hearings. Mainstream media framed her as a perpetrator. She was called a “ditsy, predatory white house intern,” a “thong-snapper,” “a stalker and seductress,” and a “caged dog with her 24-year-old libido.” Jokes at her expense appeared on T-shirts, bumper stickers, and late-night television.“One more whore and we get Gore” and “My president slept with your honor student” were emblazoned on cars in my hometown. Those “jokes” turned a young woman into a slutty punching bag while sometimes also celebrating what journalists who covered Clinton called his “horn dog persona.” Later, the specifics of these jokes faded from memory, while the characters they created—Lewinsky the perpetrator and stalker, Clinton the blameless macho hero—became the historical narrative for many.
I reported and wrote a book about sexism in the '90s, and what I see now, all these years later, is not only how stories about newsmaking women maligned, objectified, and dismissed them, but also how the decade undermined the feminist progress that was afoot—progress that Monica Lewinsky herself was actually part of.
The '90s saw the ascendance of a new kind of woman. In 1990, the median age of marriage hit a record high of 24, after it had swung between 20 and 22 for about 100 years. By 1997, it reached 25. Women were delaying marriage and children, or avoiding these choices altogether. They were entering the workforce in record numbers. They were having sex for pleasure, not procreation, thanks to expanded access to birth control, and they were talking about it without shame.
Popular television at the time depicted these women in hit shows like Living Single, Ally McBeal, and Sex and the City. This new woman, or “Cosmopolitan girl” as she was sometimes called, wielded independence and disposable income. She was marketed to by women’s magazines and Victoria’s Secret, which would earn $1 billion in revenue in 1993. The new, modern American woman of the '90s was ambitious, sexual, working a cool job and unencumbered by the domestic responsibilities of her mother’s generation. This woman was Monica Lewinsky. Thus, the bitchification and slut-shaming of Lewinsky was also an attack on this new modern American woman—and the progress she had made in the '90s—writ large.
Lewinsky’s ratings-smashing, primetime interview with Barbara Walters in 1999 revealed much about the tension surrounding the new modern American woman, and the generational divide between women themselves. Lewinsky claimed she came from a generation that was “sexually supportive of each other”—friends, not enemies, when it came to relationships. Walters asked what Lewinsky would tell her children about the affair, seeming to suggest a young woman’s life choices may look different after she yields to domesticity.
Millennial women—myself included—internalized these negative characterizations of Lewinsky. A woman who in many ways represented new possibility for young women—independence, pleasure, income, delaying marriage and kids—was torn down, not just for the sex scandal, but for what were presented as her life choices that led to it. The message was that young women should not and could not have these things. By painting her as dumb, trampy, and undeserving of love, the media narrative kicked the possibility of the independent woman to the curb.
So I don’t blame those boys at camp. They belonged to a generation shaped by sexist media portrayals of any woman who made the news, particularly those who did so for being associated with sex or scandal. With distance and context, and through the lens and language of modern feminism and of #MeToo, we can see this story much more clearly now. We can see that what was done to Lewinsky was horrible and wrong.
But we still need to reckon with the story that was told about her, the media who told it, and the ways both large and small that it shaped the young women watching that story unfold.