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Anne Harris: Is Me Too showing the signs of a darker feminism?

Monica Lewinsky’s commitment to truth may be the corrective the movement needs

Last week, Joan Didion, chronicler of the complexities of American angst, died. Last week, the television series Impeachment, American Crime Story ended. Monica Lewinsky was a producer on the series which explores her affair with Bill Clinton.

For the complex facets of angst, Impeachment was hard to beat: a president with an acknowledged sex addiction; a besotted intern half his age, a prurient prosecutor whose fundamentalism is driven by his failure to “get” the Clintons for financial misdemeanours.

But the most extraordinary aspect of Impeachment was its refusal to play the narrative on Me Too lines, although superficially Monica Lewinsky could be the identikit poster of the movement.

Naturally, at the time, Didion wrote about it. She was tough on Lewinsky. “The intern,” she wrote, “was far from a passive.”

Over 20 painful years, even as Lewinsky became an articulate anti-bullying advocate, her story still has twists, still the potential to retraumatise

The point is Lewinsky never claimed to be “passive” in the affair. Despite years of slut-shaming and fat-shaming, she chose what Didion once called, “That most uncomfortable of beds – the one she made herself.” She was an active participant in the affair and she took responsibility. Apart from her family, few gave her any support. Many American feminists backed Clinton.

The investigation into the affair was one of the maddest moments in American history – an explosive reprise of the atmosphere of McCarthyism in the 1950s and a pre-figuring of Trump’s amoral quagmire. It was the passion project of special counsel Kenneth Starr who used Lewinsky as a punchbag.

Over 20 painful years, even as she became an articulate anti-bullying advocate, her story still has twists, still the potential to retraumatise.

Christmas Eve, four years ago in a restaurant in New York’s Gramercy Park, and Monica Lewinsky’s family dinner was galvanised by an extraordinary encounter. A man in a hat approached her, inquiring after her solicitously. It was the man who had made her life a living hell: incredibly she had never met Kenneth Starr.

In that strange kinesis that comes from trauma, she introduced him to her family. Shaking off the shock, she said, “I made some terrible choices all those years ago, but you and your team made worse choices.” It was instinctive – offering him the opening to apologise.

“It was unfortunate,” he murmured.

Unfortunate that on January 6th, 1998, his team ambushed her as she awaited the friend who had betrayed? That she was held for 11 hours and 25 minutes in room 1016 in the Ritz Carlton in Pentagon City? That she was refused both lawyer or call to her mother? That she was threatened (28 years in prison) to the point that suicide seemed the only option?

They shamed her, demanding every salacious detail (did he lift her bra above or below her breasts?) of the intimacy. Even Clinton’s enemies were shocked.

In the 20 years between her ordeal and the exposure of Hollywood's bad actors' brutal, rapacious crimes, Lewinsky had never framed herself as the victim of anybody but Kenneth Starr

It was “unfortunate”. A perfect example of the passive apology, where the perpetrator takes no responsibility – sorry “that happened” as though it had nothing to do with him.

Could there be a greater contrast between two people? The evasive high Inquisitor and the woman who, even in that traumatic moment, acknowledged that her misfortune came from her own “choices”.

Lewinsky’s Christmas Eve encounter coincided with the birth of Me Too. In the 20 years between her ordeal and the exposure of Hollywood’s bad actors’ brutal, rapacious crimes, Lewinsky had never framed herself as the victim of anybody but Kenneth Starr.

Bill Clinton’s behaviour was cowardly, shockingly unworthy of any loyalty, but Lewinsky held steadily to the truth of her own sexual desire. She had flashed her thong at him and never subsequently sought to hide it beneath a penitent shroud.

Feminism, in the beginning, was above all a sexual revolution – a challenge to the restrictive moralists of the 1950s in a glorious, Dionysian honouring of female sexuality, agency, desire and tolerance, which ultimately meant control of their own bodies.

Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive but it didn’t last long. All too soon, that global collective of feisty women fighting discrimination and sexism was replaced by a stern ideology: women were an “oppressed class”.

The pathology of this position, what Joan Didion called “wounded bird feminism” is that all women are framed in a permanent state of victimhood: innocent women at the mercy of predatory men.

Is Me Too showing the signs of a darker feminism, where unsatisfactory sex has been framed as assault or any criticism by a man automatically framed as misogyny?

This extreme allowed the really innocent women and really predatory men to remain for too long in the shadows. Me Too has been that revolution. By purging and punishing sexual predators in Hollywood, it has challenged the disenfranchisement of women in all workplaces. Including, presumably the White House.

But is Me Too showing the signs of a darker feminism, where unsatisfactory sex has been framed as assault or any criticism by a man automatically framed as misogyny?

Now as Me Too offers her the cover – comfort even – of icon status, will Lewinsky’s defence of her own sexuality waver? Or will her commitment to the truth provide the corrective that Me Too inevitably requires?

Me Too, she says, has helped her see her experience through a different lens. But, she insists, this doesn’t excuse her responsibility for what happened.

“I meet regret every day.”

Joan Didion, who always left the complexities on the page, could not have said it better.