A Starr is born: how the media made a name for Monica Lewinsky

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Photo: Creative Commons

Monica Lewinsky TEDTalk/Creative Commons

By Meg Richards

He wrote her like the main character in a fan fiction—something to be consumed but not respected. 

“She told him that she had a crush on him. He laughed, then asked if she would like to see his private office…in the windowless hallway adjacent to the study, they kissed.”

Bill Clinton was impeached December 19, 1998 for lying under oath (Starr Report, 1998). 

Kenneth Starr, the independent counselor who questioned former president Bill Clinton, passed away at the age of 76 on Sept. 13. Starr’s death has unburied his famous report that exposed former U.S. President Bill Clinton before the nation knew about his relationship with a young staffer named Monica Lewinsky. The “Starr Report,” which marked Starr’s career, was not only an investigative report presented before Congress, but also a national bestseller that fanned the flames engulfing Lewinsky’s legacy.

Starr, a notorious Clinton critic, was motivated to embarrass the former president and thus discount his respectability.  It was for this reason Starr went into such invasive detail regarding Lewinsky and Clinton’s emotional and sexual intimacy. He presented the evidence of her yearning for Clinton to the public in his reports objectively, yet in explicit detail. This included, but was not limited to, highlighting Lewinsky’s heartache and longing with a whole section of the Starr Report titled “Ms. Lewinsky’s Frustrations”, in which she describes to a friend her despair in Clinton’s giving her the cold shoulder. It may be argued that this was required for a fair and just trial, but with each painstaking detail of Lewinsky’s eager desire, Starr gave the public more material to paint her as a conniving, scheming vixen. 

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A story intended to seize a political opportunity was spun by the media into one that slut-shamed a sharp, promising, savvy young woman straight out of Washington. Given the obscenity of the Starr Report, it is a feat in and of itself that Lewinsky remains in the public eye, able to spin her story into a positive one, even if she did not achieve the successful political career she was set up for.

Lewinsky and Clinton’s relationship began when they were 22 and 49, respectively. As the Starr Report speciously illustrates, Lewinsky had fervently pursued Clinton for months and initiated their first sexual encounter. Starr emphasized the gestures Lewinsky made towards Clinton in an effort to woo him from start to finish. She sent him gifts before, during, and after their relationship. She sent love letters quoting Romeo and Juliet through newspaper ads on Valentine’s Day. She told her mother that, in a few years time, she could see herself becoming his wife (Starr, 1998).

The evidence of Clinton’s lying under oath and Lewinsky’s intimate feelings through the investigation were obtained through private tapes. Initially, the details were among private phone calls between Lewinsky and her close friend Linda Tripp, but were later found to be recorded and distributed to Starr by Tripp, without Lewinsky’s consent or knowledge. The day after Starr received the tapes, the FBI wired Tripp and sent her back to get more intel, again without Lewinsky’s knowledge.  Several quotes that are directly from Lewinsky in the report were intended only to be heard by Tripp, shared in confidence and trust. These quotes not only exposed  the President for lying under oath, but also included  raunchy details of intimacy and declarations of love (Lewinsky discloses Tripp of details such as “begging to see him” [Clinton] after their breakup). These were included to great extent in the Starr Report. 

For Starr, in essence and in practice, Lewinsky always gave and never received. When Starr displayed the facts of Lewinsky’s unrequited love and desperation, he set the stage for the media to fashion Lewinsky as the villainous “other woman;” one that nice family guy Clinton never had a chance of refusing. 

Starr profoundly influenced the way the media represented Lewinsky. He wrote a story of an awe-struck intern and passed it out to the public, who twisted it into one featuring an obsessed, love-struck Lewinsky. In the eyes of the public, Lewinsky weaponized her feminine prowess to destroy a picturesque American First Family. 

The cold reality of this narrative is that it absolves Clinton of all responsibility. It conflates a young Lewinsky’s infatuation with a greed for power – a greed for an unattainable man. 

Lewinsky quickly gained a reputation of power grabbing and exploiting her body for political currency and personal satisfaction. Conversely, she soon found herself a victim to rash headlines crying “bimbo,” thinly veiling and grossly normalizing slut-shaming. 

She was reduced to a mindless sexual object, but just as we realized this would attribute even more power and awareness to Clinton, a dichotomy was born. Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Maureen Dowd reported her as “not just ditzy, but predatory,” all within the same sentence. 

In this new role, the intricate mind games and sexual power previously attributed to Lewinsky were not reverted to Clinton; rather, he got to be the man who fell prey to the mindless, naive “bimbo” who stumbled into his office. She could have been anyone, and it was not the man’s fault for being unable to resist the temptation of someone ready and willing to homewreck. Journalist Michael Hobbes of the “You’re Wrong About” podcast articulated this double standard in his Monica Lewinsky episode: 

“My grandmother still hates Hillary Clinton with a fiery passion. Why? Because she didn’t leave Bill when he ran around on her. This is why my grandmother voted for Donald Trump. Donald Trump cheating on his wife is fine, but Hillary Clinton not leaving her husband for cheating on her is not fine,” Hobbes said.

Though this line of reasoning was perpetuated by the media and public, Starr provided the tools  with each over explained sexual encounter. Every sexual interaction, phone call, undergarment of choice, word whispered under a breath, or clandestine meeting, is spelled out clearly and explicitly in the Starr Report.

It is for that very reason, not because it is a riveting political scandal, that this report became a bestseller. And it is for that reason Lewinsky became the media’s prime scapegoat. Starr’s thorough illustration of Clinton and Lewinsky’s sexual relationship brought Lewinsky a lifetime of ruthless slut-shaming. 

Starr disclosed grotesque and exploitative details in an effort to humiliate Clinton. He crudely exaggerated instances in which contact was made with Clinton’s and Lewinsky’s genitals, sometimes involving games and stimulation with cigars. The result of this, because the public and press are inherently sexist, was a young girl’s image being tarnished before she had the opportunity to fully become an adult.  

Details of both Lewinsky’s one sided love and the couple’s sexual encounters gave the press and public the ammunition they needed to vilify a young, female professional in politics. However impartial Starr tried to remain as an independent counselor, the public was always the final jury for Lewinsky. 

Starr portrayed her as both a persuasive seductress and a ditzy nympho. Her schemes grew with every gift sent and steamy phone call made. But she was also a lewd floozy—the lights were on, but no one was home. 

In both narratives, her desire was insatiable and her nags persistent. In actuality, she was a deeply complex person who felt a true emotional connection to Clinton. She was imperfect but nuanced; she was in love. This is evident in Lewinsky’s testimony and the Starr Report:

“I never expected to fall in love with the President. I was surprised that I did.” She then goes on to recall Clinton reciprocating this, saying that together, they were “emotive and full of fire, and she made him feel young.”

It is this rich rumination and articulation of experience that proves she is more than her sexuality. Her sexual agency is not mutually exclusive from her eloquence, poise, and perspectives. 

Today, Lewinsky is an anti-bullying advocate who uses her platform to raise awareness. She has written for Vanity Fair, produced for American Crime Story, and given TedTalks. In a 2015 TedTalk, Lewinsky emphasized the need for empathy from the public.

“It’s time for an intervention on the Internet and in our culture,” she said. “The shift begins with something simple, but it’s not easy: We need to return to a long-held value of compassion.”

Lewinsky continues to  share her lived experience of cyberbullying and scrutiny in the public eye in an effort to help struggling youth. Though we cannot assure that something like this will never happen again, we can learn from her resilience, self-determination, and bravery in the face of a sexist media.