Zoe Barnes and Monica Lewinsky Walk Into the White House


In the days since Monica Lewinsky returned to the public eye with a confessional essay in Vanity Fair, the feminist blogosphere has been all a-twitter. Much has been made of Lewinsky’s claim that she was “the first person whose global humiliation was driven by the Internet.” Women like Jessica Valenti who regularly deal with online harassment and violence have taken this moment to examine the evolution of misogynistic cyber-bullying, from the Clinton-era days of dial-up to the present.

But there is a kind of specificity to Lewinsky’s legacy that I’m not sure every woman can understand. In a general sense, Valenti is correct: Lewinsky was, indeed, brought low by the internet. More specifically, though, she was brutalized by a political culture that devalues women. Washington, not the broad, teeming Internet, is ultimately guilty of making Lewinsky an example for ambitious little girls.

Lewinsky’s spectre hangs over every young woman with a dream of working in Washington. She has become inescapable, a tired trope in every piece of Capitol Hill media produced in the last decade.

The pilot episode of Scandal, for instance, features a scene where protagonist Olivia Pope confronts a young White House intern, Amanda Tanner, who is allegedly involved in an affair with the fictitious President Fitzgerald Grant. Pope accuses Tanner of lying, tells her that her political career is dead, and advises her to pack her things and get the hell out of town. A later scene in the same episode reveals that Tanner attempted suicide following this conversation, out of shame, guilt, and the categorical knowledge that if she went public about her experiences, she would not be believed.

Then there’s Zoe Barnes of House of Cards – not a White House intern in this incarnation, but a street-smart D.C. journalist who attempts to further her career via a romantic entanglement with nefarious Democratic whip Frank Underwood. For her efforts, she winds up dead, pushed in front of an errant subway car by Underwood.

In this post-Lewinsky world, caricature after caricature of the intrepid, precocious female intern is created, only to be hyper-sexualized and then dispatched, often violently. It’s a cruel, ugly characterization of hardworking young women, and a reminder that politics remains, steadfastly, a boys’ club.

This perception carries over into the real world, of course. I was eighteen years old when I was hired for my first real political job, working as a communications intern on Parliament Hill. The Hill is a pressure cooker for anyone, make no mistake, but I became acutely aware that my fellow interns, all young men, weren’t subject to many of the forces that were pressuring me.

“Intern,” as it turns out, is an inherently sexualized term – at least, when the intern is a woman. On mainstream porn sites, searching “intern” brings up pages and pages of results. Phrases like “slutty intern” and “slept with an intern” are tossed around so casually – on the Hill, in the media, and virtually everywhere else – that I found myself carefully evaluating everything from my clothes to my conversation, lest I be perceived as a potential Lewinsky 2.0. There is a fine, fine line between professionalism – modifying your behavior and your dress to better fit an office environment – and perpetual fear that if you wear the wrong thing, say the wrong thing, or do the wrong thing, you will be cast in a role you have no interest in playing.

If statistics on sexual harassment in the workplace are any indication, women aged 15 to 24 are, by a wide margin, at greater risk for on-the-job sex discrimination and sexual assault than any other group. Young women in politics – and virtually every other profession – are frequently and baselessly accused of attempting to “sleep their way to the top.” This criticism is never leveled at men because, well, men control the top. Especially in government. It’s telling that even now, after all these years, Lewinsky is still little more than a punchline or a lyric in a Beyoncé song (“He popped all my buttons and he ripped my blouse/He Monica Lewinski’d all on my gown”), while Bill Clinton remains one of the most powerful men in the world. Sure, he has been accused of manipulating, coercing, and abusing a young woman, but, somehow, these accusations didn’t prove career-ending.

When we look at the history of the scandal, we need to remember that Lewinsky was not the only participant, nor the one whose misbehavior did the most damage. We need to remember that she was humiliated, driven to suicidal ideation, and essentially barred from ever holding a steady job by virtue of the fact that employers were ashamed to be associated with her. Clinton, on the other hand, weathered the scandal’s storm and slid, relatively quickly and quietly, back into his role as a well-regarded leader and thinker. When Clinton is interviewed, it’s considered inappropriate to bring up the subject of the scandal; when Lewinsky is interviewed, the scandal is the only subject she is allowed to talk about.

The bulk of the scandal’s shame has been placed squarely on Lewinsky’s shoulders, serving as a warning to young women and a reassurance to philandering men.

It’s time to end this destructive pattern once and for all. Ambitious young women who seek out positions in politics are to be commended – not criticized, not assumed to be “asking for it,” not treated in popular media as stepping stones for older men. There are enough barriers to women’s participation in government, and the shaming stereotype of the sex-obsessed intern is one of many which ought to be eradicated immediately. We owe that much to young women who want to shatter glass ceilings.

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