A Media Maelstrom
On January 17, 1998, the Drudge Report broke the story that former White House intern Monica Lewinsky had been involved in an “improper” sexual relationship with then-President Bill Clinton. The release of this initial report signified the tipping point of a salacious scandal that would dominate mainstream news coverage and create a “media maelstrom” the likes of which American politics had not yet seen—but would feel the effects of for years to come.
While specifics of the scandal hardly bear repeating, it is significant to note that Monica Lewinsky’s supposed transgressions were first disseminated digitally. While just a technicality at the time, today it’s considered a milestone: the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was one of the first major news stories to “break” online and Lewinsky one of the first private citizens to have their public selves definitively transformed by the internet’s gaze.
Scholarly work surrounding the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal is significant—previously the scandal has been used as a case study in understanding public opinion, presidential impeachment, political scandal, and public apology. Any scholar of rhetoric might have a field day with Clinton’s infamous line, “It depends on what the definition of the word is is” and they certainly have—rhetorical critics have mercilessly scrutinized news coverage, public speeches, and transcript of grand jury testimony, but usually with a focus on the Clinton administration’s strategic communication following the event. There has been far less scholarly work, however, that analyzes the role and significance of Lewinsky as an actor in this very complex rhetorical situation.
I would argue that the story of Monica Lewinsky provides us with a case study in visual rhetoric as much as it does a case study in political scandal. The public’s perception and understanding of Lewinsky was one primarily constructed and then continually perpetuated through a series of visual, digital, and material artifacts. Hers is a story that becomes particularly salient when considered in the context of a media landscape that was changing rapidly at the time and is still changing today. Monica Lewinsky became an object of visual consumption during a period of time in which the “public sphere” was becoming the “public screen.” Hers is a story that the American public literally watched unfold and has continued to watch today.
This essay will demonstrate how visual media operate rhetorically to construct lasting public identities, how these public identities can become iconic, and how that can become undone. The evolution of Lewinsky’s public identity can be used to understand how a series of widely distributed and circulated images can work to construct a person as an iconic image—and what it takes to undo that iconic image status. In this essay, I will explore specifically how two films have worked to shape (and reshape) Lewinsky’s public identity: the 2002 HBO documentary Monica in Black & White and Monica Lewinsky’s 2015 TED Talk The price of shame.
By examining rhetorical aspects of these visual artifacts, including their form and composition, I will investigate how Monica Lewinsky’s public image has been made and remade again over time and how the remaking of an iconic image can require a remaking of its observer as well. This essay will explore the following questions: How does a person become an iconic image? How does an iconic image become undone? How do we bury the dress and burn the beret?
Monica in Black and Blue
Ernest Jones famously wrote, “The ultimate question is whether a woman is born or made.” One could certainly argue that Monica Lewinsky was born a woman and one day—perhaps overnight—made into That Woman. And this is where we arrive at our first question: how does a person become an iconic image? How does a woman become That Woman?
In their book, No Caption Needed: Iconic Photographs, Public Culture, and Liberal Democracy, Robert Hariman and John Louis Lucaites define an “iconic image” with the following criteria: (1) widely recognizable, (2) representative of a significant moment in history, (3) generative of a strong emotional response, and (4) widely circulated and reproduced across media, genre and topic.
Under this definition, Lewinsky more than qualifies. Thanks to compulsive newspaper and broadcast television coverage, Lewinsky’s face became one of the most widely reproduced and recognized images of 1998. The New York Times and the Wall Street Journal alone ran more than 1200 articles on the impeachment scandal that year. This news coverage placed Lewinsky at the epicenter of one of the most historically significant events of the decade; mention of her name could elicit intense emotional responses in just about everyone from news correspondent Matt Lauer (who famously heckled Lewinsky off the stage of the Today Show) to feminist writer Maureen Dowd (who regularly published scathing op-eds about Lewinsky in The New York Times).
The “iconic image” status of That Woman was one fundamentally and primarily mediated through a series of visual, digital, and material artifacts—think of the cigar, the blue dress, the black beret. The distribution of that image was pervasive; she was a fixture of both political and popular culture at the time and still today. (To Lewinsky’s own present knowledge, she’s in the lyrics of almost 40 rap songs; the actual count reveals 128.) Through Saturday Night Live sketches and photos in tabloid magazines, Lewinsky effectively became a caricature—an actual Halloween costume—and a public identity unrecognizable to the person herself.
This caricature was only reflected and reinforced to the public by the constant news coverage surrounding her. A recent article published in the Journal of Communication Inquiry titled “Monica Lewinsky and Shame: 1998 Newspaper Framing of That Woman” examined mainstream newspaper coverage of Monica Lewinsky in the year that her relationship with the President came to public light. Through a qualitative analysis of media coverage, the study illustrates how newspaper coverage portrayed Lewinsky “solely in the context of her association with men and became a caricature based on assumptions made by journalists.”
At best, she was “infatuated,” “love-struck,” and “starry-eyed.” At very worst, she was “slutty,” and a “sexual predator.” As this article rightfully points out, this caricature portrayed in the headlines of newspapers is not altogether surprising as “newspapers have long been male-dominated workplaces the reflect the patriarchal views of society as a whole.” The iconic status of That Woman is unfortunately inescapable for Monica Lewinsky, and the person beneath the persona is left bruised, in black and blue.
Monica in Black and White
Interestingly enough, this iconic status is one that becomes fixed largely during a period of time in which Lewinsky is rendered publicly silent by her immunity deal with Kenneth Starr. But on January 22, 2001—three years after The Drudge Report first breaks the story—Lewinsky’s immunity deal with Kenneth Starr expires and she becomes “free” to discuss the events of the investigation and to speak for herself. Lewinsky then approaches HBO about another deal—an exclusive tell-all documentary with Monica’s side of the story.
The film that results from this deal with HBO is a 2002 documentary produced by Los Angeles-based production company World of Wonder titled Monica in Black & White and is one of the most interesting artifacts of that time in Lewinsky’s life. It depicts a complete timeline of the Lewinsky scandal (very helpful for those of us that were toddlers at the time) cut together with public record, media archive and interviews from “the intern” herself.
But instead of the traditional talking-head style interviews, Lewinsky’s responses are taken from a very peculiar public affair. As a part of the documentary, HBO staged a Q&A at Cooper Union in New York City. The ‘audience’ is made up of HBO staff and law students from Princeton, NYU, and Columbia who have been invited to attend the taping and ask Lewinsky any question that they want. She may choose to answer or not answer, but the entirety of the event will be filmed for the purpose of the documentary.
Watching these clips, we can see Lewinsky dressed professionally in a dark pantsuit and casually seated cross-legged on the edge of a stage. She is at the front of an auditorium that appears seated to capacity. The room is partially full of law students; Lewinsky believed that the legal aspects of her situation would be of most interest to the public. But the questions are predictably much more personal; her answers are unscripted and she often becomes visibly emotional or uncomfortable by the questions. At one point, the audience begins to laugh at a response, and she asks, “Why is that funny?”
For a film supposed to express Lewinsky’s authenticity, the entire thing appears highly constructed. The “candid” Q&A was actually filmed over three days—and the resulting interviews are cut together with shots of the rehearsal as well. While viewers of the film have been told that these are audience members, there’s no way of telling which questions might be planted by HBO producers. Even in the film’s first few moments, audience members ask tough questions that, no doubt, the viewers at home must be asking as well: Why are you doing this? Has it been worth it?
Lewinsky explains to the audience that she thought film this would be the best way to open up a dialogue and clear up “misconceptions” but struggles to communicate the nuance of her present situation: she had never asked to become a public person, but realizes that she can’t undo what’s been done in the past three years.
Reactions to this film and to many of the public appearances Lewinsky made in these years (which included a spread in Vanity Fair, an interview with Barbara Walters, a commercial with Jenny Craig, and even a brief stint with reality TV) were less than favourable. Each new attempt for Lewinsky to “reclaim” her own narrative and name fell for her devastatingly flat. An American public saw her as manipulative and deceitful; the promiscuous intern ready to cash in on her fifteen minutes of fame. As a reporter at the time wrote in Newsweek, “One can't help but wonder that a part of Lewinsky—who was paid for her participation by HBO—always craved the spotlight after all.”
All of the honest and authenticity and sincerity that this documentary was supposed to convey—with its tightly framed close-ups in black and white—are lost on an audience too hostile to her cause.
In “The Liberated Captive: A Review of Monica in Black and White,” Monika I. Hogan writes, “Most people who have a knee-jerk negative response to Lewinsky’s attempts at self-explanation accuse her (as Matt Lauer did) of “making a career out of being Monica.” It is presumed that, first, she is making a fortune from her fame; second, she would never have had the opportunity to amass this fortune if it were not for her key role in the Clinton impeachment scandal; and, third, she enjoys her notoriety and perhaps even planned it. The new documentary can be superficially read as a continuation of this grand scheme, and Monica in Black and White immediately irks critics because it was Lewinsky’s idea, and because she was paid an undisclosed sum by HBO for her participation.”
Hogan continues, “The documentary illuminates the cultural forces that work to block our sympathy for Lewinsky—more specifically, our inability to process the humanity of a woman whose most intimate private life has become public.”
During one particularly memorable moment in the documentary, a young man asks, “How does it feel to be America’s premiere blow job queen?” And the audience is reminded of who That Woman is and will likely always be; it takes much more than a black and white documentary to undo an icon.
The price of shame
It’s only after nearly a decade of silence that Lewinsky returns to the public screen once again, and to answer the very same question. This time, her answer is more than a simple rebuff.
“How does it feel to be America’s premiere blow job queen?” read the opening lines of Lewinsky’s 2014 Vanity Fair debut. This several page spread titled “On Shame and Survival,” is a story she’s written herself. “It’s time,” she announces, “to bury the beret and burn the blue dress.” And in 2014, maybe it is time.
In this second return to the public screen, Lewinsky has wisely hired a team of public relations professionals. Over the next year, they orchestrate a string of public (re)appearances that include a newly verified Twitter account, a keynote lecture for Forbes, and most famously a 2015 TED Talk, The price of shame.
The TED talk, which today has been viewed more than 11 million times, discusses Lewinsky’s own personal experiences with what she calls our current culture of shame and humiliation following the scandal. Here, Lewinsky, finally takes up the role of victim that she would never play to Clinton—she has only been the victim of us, the viewer, an observing American public starved for someone else’s shame. The price of that shame is now one we have to pay as well.
As Lewinsky shares her story on the TED stage, we can see a stark aesthetic difference between the 2002 Monica that was and the 2015 Monica that is. Whereas previously perched on the edge of a stage and leaned in to create a sense of rapport, the Lewinsky here addresses the audience from behind a podium establishing a comfortable distance between herself and her observers. She reads from a script and doesn’t appear surprised when the audience laughs—all of her jokes have been carefully rehearsed.
And while there was the occasional troll, the response to this talk was overwhelmingly positive. Messages of support for Lewinsky rolled in—most surprising, from strangers apologizing for the way they passively contributed to her visual consumption of her caricature and the public assassination of her character.
Even a recent article for Esquire titled, “A Nightmare of Shallow, Conceited Humblebraggery: Why Won’t TED Talks Give it a Rest?” which provided a particularly biting criticism of the TED form, praised Lewinsky’s 2015 talk as the “best in TED history.” The author writes, “There is something moving about seeing Lewinsky emerge from the silent movie of her ordeal and speak for herself for the first time, and reveal herself to be a deeply intelligent and insightful person with authentic insights into cyberbullying.”
We know, of course, that this not exactly the “first time” Lewinsky has chosen to speak publicly and for herself—so why is this “new” Monica one that an American public is so eager to embrace? How has That Woman become so easily undone?
Amanda Hess in an article for Slate writes, “Lewinsky’s attempt to centralize her own experience—“It may surprise you to learn that I’m actually a person,” she writes in Vanity Fair—seems all of a sudden like a promising tactic in 2014. We now have enough space from the scandal to begin to question how we treated its participants, and our media landscape is fractured enough to support all angles. If the scandal broke today, Lewinsky’s XoJane “It Happened to Me” essay would be deluged with supportive comments. Sites like this one wouldn’t stand for all that slut-shaming.”
As these two films were produced more than a decade apart, we can safely assume that although some segments are distinct, there is a considerable overlap in viewers. Though the public’s view of Monica and Black & White and The price of shame are both shaped by a distinct historical, cultural, political lens— they are views shaped by the model of vision available at the time. We have to consider that’s what’s changed is not necessary Lewinsky, but our affective response to her story. The remaking of Monica requires a remaking of the observer as well.
In his book Techniques of the Observer, Jonathan Crary alludes to the ways in which emerging technologies have influenced the “nature of visuality” during the twenty-first century and describes the current shift as “probably more profound than the break that separates medieval imagery from Renaissance perspective.” Although his book mainly addresses technological advancements that occurred before 1850, Crary notes that “the rapid development in little more than a decade” has caused us to reconfigure once again the subject/observer relationship and its previously established cultural meaning.
This book was published in 1992 (a year when the name Monica Lewinsky was still just a name) and even then, Crary could hardly anticipate the changes that would occur in the decades to come and the complex ways in which these developments would change how individuals see and are seen by one another. At the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal in 1998, only about half of Americans are actively online or even see the value in being online. By the release of Monica in Black & White in 2002, the world is on the precipice of a social media revolution but MySpace, Twitter and Facebook do not yet exist.
By 2015, the observer comes equipped with a supercomputer in our pocket and that supercomputer comes equipped with a “supercamera” of its own. With this supercamera, there are relatively no obstacles to ‘making visible’ the entire human experience. It’s been estimated that every few minutes, humans take as many photos as were taken in the entire nineteenth century. Pair this infinite image-creating capacity with the infinite sharing capacity of social media, and human vision has become more “measurable and thus exchangeable” than ever before. The outcome of this phenomenon might be thought of as the remaking of the observer as a super-observer. The super-observer is now hypervigilant: constantly surveilling family, friends, strangers and celebrities, and even themselves. They instantaneously record and share everything; any private moment is just one still waiting to be made public. In this new regime of visibility, the lines between “private” and “public” have blurred. Everything is meant to be made visible.
In his 2005 article The New Visibility, John B. Thompson uses political scandal (such as the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal) as a way of illustrating certain aspects of this new regime of visibility and argues that the rise of the new visibility is inseparably linked to the new forms of action and interaction brought about by communication media.
“Today,” he writes, “we live in an age of high media visibility and those who or aspire to positions of prominence in public life find themselves acting in an information environment which is very different from that which existed several centuries and several decades ago.”
“In this new world of mediated visibility, the making visible of actions and events is not just the outcome of leakage in systems of communication and information flow that are increasingly difficult to control: it is also an explicit strategy of individuals who know very well that mediated visibility can be a weapon in the struggles they wage in their day-to-day lives.”
He describes how new forms of visibility gave way to a society of self-disclosure, in which public figures could appear personal, as “one of us.”
In her TED Talk, Lewinsky considers how her story would have played out in this new regime of visibility, one in which shame is supposedly made to scale. She imagines the very worst, and yet I argue an alternative—shame may sell, but vulnerability has become the true commodity. Knowingly or not, Lewinsky in 2015 has entered into a cultural moment where authenticity is finally the prize.
The observer that so warmly embraces Lewinsky in 2015 has been remade by this new regime as well: the super-observer is finally able to see Lewinsky as “one of us. We are no longer leering at Lewinsky comfortably seated in the amphitheatre, but placed beside her in a panoptic machine. We know what it feels like to be watched as well because we can operate only safely within the panopticon of our own performed online selves.
The only thing able to undo the iconic image of That Woman is the recognition of Monica Lewinsky as something even more desirable—a human being capable of change and more deserving of our compassion than our clicks.
Burning the beret
Once an object made for public visual consumption, Lewinsky is now a powerful, acting subject. Today, she is a prolific public speaker, a New York Times columnist, social justice activist, anti-bullying advocate, and overall person worth following on Twitter.
Though she may never be able to fully escape the spectres of former selves that still haunt the dark side of the web, Lewinsky has carved out a comfortable space for herself online where she can share herself and speak her mind.
We were reminded of this just a few weeks ago, when TV news network HLN announced that it would be revisiting “the shocking affair that nearly toppled a presidency” with a two-part special titled, How It Really Happened: The Monica Lewinsky Scandal. The retrospective would feature “behind-the-scene” and “never-before-heard” heard interviews from White House staff and working journalists at the time—the only person excluded in the long-ranging list of interviews was, of course, one of the only persons who might object to its premiere: Lewinsky herself.
And object she did—tweeting to her two hundred thousand followers a screenshot of the announcement with the words “The Monica Lewinsky Scandal” marked through in red and replaced with “The Clinton Impeachment Scandal,” the image captioned as, “Fixed it for you. You’re welcome.”
Her tweet was liked 41,000 times and what dominated the mainstream media coverage that week was not news of the special, but Monica’s Twitter takedown of it. A few days later, HLN quietly made the decision to retitle its special as The Clinton-Lewinsky Scandal.
Finally, we’ve seen Monica—now, a maelstrom herself.