Jennifer O'Connell: Give Monica Lewinsky a break

Jennifer O’Connell: Lewinsky was betrayed by many people, but her greatest betrayal was by a society that loves nothing more than a sexual woman to demonise

Monica Lewinsky: making a case for the public to recast its opinion of her. Photograph: David Maialetti/AP Photo/Philadelphia Daily News

Monica Lewinsky: making a case for the public to recast its opinion of her. Photograph: David Maialetti/AP Photo/Philadelphia Daily News

 

Could the real Monica Lewinsky please stand up? (Enough of the schoolboy sniggering.)

Is it possible that we’ve been wrong about her all along? That the woman most famous for the tricks she could do with a cigar was actually a guileless, romantic ingenue, who was led astray by a powerful older man? Or was (and is) she a ruthless and wily predator, now casting about for someone else to blame for her own abhorrent behaviour?

Lewinsky herself is currently making a strong case for the public to recast its opinion of her. First there was the Vanity Fair article in the summer, in which she said she had been betrayed by feminism. Then, last week, there was her speech at the Forbes Under 30 event, in which she movingly described herself as the internet’s first trolling victim – its “Patient Zero” – and got a standing ovation for it.

“I fell in love with my boss, in a 22-year-old sort of way,” she said in the speech, which is worth watching online. “It happens. But my boss was the president of the United States.”

Later she said: “I would go online, read in a paper or see on TV people referring to me as: tramp, slut, whore, tart, bimbo, floozy, even spy.”

So, which is she: naive romantic or the “tramp, slut, whore” of public opinion? Well, let’s see. She was 22. He was 50. She was single. He was married, with a child. She was an intern. He was her boss – oh, and he was also the president of the US and the leader of the free world.

It might have been consensual, but it was hardly a relationship of equals. Lewinsky wasn’t completely naive, of course, but she was young enough to have believed whatever guff he spun her about their relationship meaning something.

Like Lewinsky, I was just embarking on adulthood in 1997. I like to think that there the comparison ends, but, like her, I made decisions in my early 20s that I wouldn’t have made in my 30s (or even in my mid-20s). I remember watching the whole thing unfold in 1998 and feeling a shudder of horror at how readily the adult world chewed her up and vomited her out.

She was betrayed all right, but not by the internet and not by feminism, despite some less than sisterly commentary by a few feminists (yes, I’m looking at you, Maureen Dowd, and your “too tubby to be in the high-school ‘in crowd’ ” remark). She was betrayed most spectacularly by Clinton himself. She was betrayed by Kenneth Starr, who spent $70 million of public money publishing intimate details of her sex life.

But mostly she was betrayed by a society that loves nothing more than a woman to demonise – unless, of course, that’s a sexual woman to demonise. Lewinsky made mistakes, but she has a paid a high price for it: her dignity, her privacy, her reputation. Sixteen years on, she has grown up. It’s time the rest of us did too.

 

Facing up to our unfair feelings about the new Renée Zellweger 

You’ll no doubt have seen the photos causing public horror and outrage all over the internet. No, not the images of torture victims in Syria on display at the Holocaust museum in Washington; I’m referring to the pictures of Renée Zellweger’s face.

Zellweger, like Lewinsky, is feeling the full brunt of public disapproval because she is guilty of the crime of caring enough about her appearance to undergo surgery (quite a lot of it apparently, although she claims her new look is down to a “happy, healthy lifestyle”).

As a woman in the public eye, you can’t win. Remember the opprobrium heaped on Sinéad O’Connor a couple of years ago, when she stepped out in public, some two decades after Nothing Compares 2U, looking exactly like two decades had passed since Nothing Compares 2U? Now Sinéad’s back looking slim and youthful, all is forgiven. Renée looks young too, but it’s the wrong kind of young. As a woman in the public eye, you’re damned if you care, and damned if you don’t care enough.

 

Halloween in the US is scary indeed

By the time you read this, I’ll have embarked on the week-long Halloween festivities taking over the San Francisco Bay Area town, where I live. No, that’s not a typo. The celebrations here last a week, and include, roughly, two school parties, one office party, a witch’s walk through the main street of our town, numerous pumpkin-carving contests and, for the children, a day off school on the day itself. The Irish may have invented Halloween – or the festival of Samhain – but when it comes to celebrating it, it isn’t a patch on the US. In our house, the celebrations have already claimed their first casualty – a broken wrist sustained by falling off (what else?) a haystack at the pumpkin farm. A local friend warns this is just the start of Hallowthanksmas, a time of warmth, sharing and lots of trips to the emergency room. I can hardly wait.

 

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