After their affair almost took down the Clinton presidency, Bill Clinton stayed in the White House, seemingly invincible, while Monica Lewinsky slunk out of public view.
But not for long. At age 27, Lewinsky arrived in New York as one of the most infamous women in American history. It was the age of post-millennial excess, the New York City of Candace Bushnell and designer everything. Into this glamorous universe, Monica — no last name necessary — was ushered. She became an “It Girl,” but also an object of constant surveillance, and the subject of a memorable profile by Vanessa Grigoriadis in New York Magazine.
Now, in an era when zero privacy and social media ubiquity are the two expectations for New Yorkers the same age as Monica was at the time of the profile, that old magazine article forms the basis of a brand-new web series called Monica: the Miniseries. Reading Grigoriadis’ profile is like going through a time tunnel, an experience which clearly influenced the creators of the show, director Doron Max Hagay and writer Lily Marotta.
First of all, there is the frenzied obsession over Monica’s everyday life, which has (largely) faded today. Grigoriadis writes:
New York is a big city, but when you’re Monica, it can feel like a small town. Shopkeepers wave in greeting, people stop to introduce her to their dogs, and she gets extra whipped cream on her hot chocolate. Even at the toniest restaurants, maître d’s kiss Monica on both cheeks and gasp over her outfit before whisking her to the best table; at the end of the meal, customers often send over a bottle of champagne or, perhaps, a piece of pie (“Well, if I have to . . . ,” she jokes, digging in). And if a rude patron happens to ask if she’s “really Monica,” she just bats her eyelashes, puts on her sassiest smile, and purrs, “You know, I get that all the time!”
But, of course, it wasn’t all freebies and VIP tables for Monica:
Not long ago, she was chased down the street by a group of men screaming epithets, and tabloids still report news like “Monica eats potato chips,” “Monica’s snuck out the kitchen door of Balthazar,” and “Monica stuffs herself with crab cakes” (“I don’t even eat seafood,” she protests).
In the opening episode of Monica, the former White House intern, beret on her head and sneakers on her feet, sits in a one-on-one session with her yoga teacher, who is an appropriate mix of toxic and encouraging. The teacher mentions Monica’s “baggage” and “the elephant in the studio” while instructing the protagonist on the fine arts of downward dog and letting go — as if the latter were actually possible.
In the second episode, Monica encounters a young, hot mom-in-the-city type walking through Central Park with a stroller. Initially claiming that her husband knows Monica from school, the stranger stops her for a chat. But when the connection proves more and more tenuous, Monica tries to disentangle herself.
“I used to know a girl like you,” says the mom, suddenly vicious (and hilarious). “She was a whore. She ruined the lives of everyone around her, and then nobody wanted her.”
Monica hurries away, but her subsequent meeting with a friend in PR suggests that agreeing to the New York Magazine story and an HBO documentary are her way of trying to wrest control of the narrative that everyone wants to determine for her.
Monica may have been the toast of certain parts of NYC, but she was also reviled, and stigmatized. As Lewinsky herself has said regarding the conservative and mainstream media’s obsession with her, she was “patient zero” in the online bullying scourge that now affects so many women. In fact, today women online, from Gamergate to the Serial podcast, are constantly being harassed by being essentially refashioned by trolls into Monica types. That is to say, they’re accused of inappropriate interest in men, or riding a paramour’s coattails to fame.
Given all this context, I’m not entirely sure what tone the show is trying to strike just yet. Is its rather innocuous-seeming Lewinsky a victim, heroine, or avatar of modern womanhood? Certainly, approaching two decades after we first heard her name, we’re living in a media universe Monica herself helped remake, without reaping many of its rewards. If Hillary Clinton is at the vanguard of 21st-century American female political power, Monica is her equivalent in the world of unwilling sex celebrities who have wrested a version of empowerment from the world’s prurient gaze.
Watching her life on a web series, that quintessential 2014-2015 storytelling medium, raises the question: Would Monica Lewinsky be as much of a pariah and object of perverse fascination in a post-Lena-Dunham-sex-scenes, post-Jezebel, post-Snapchat, post-celebrity-sex-tape world? Or would she just be considered delightfully, trashily awesome? Think about it: in Monica Lewinsky’s wake, Paris Hilton turned sexual infamy into a career, and then Kim Kardashian turned it into a mega-career with a veneer of respectability and artistry and business acumen as well. It may be that Lewinsky’s affair with Clinton paved the way for this post-embarrassment, post-privacy invasion by a new kind of celebrity power. It’s the power of not giving a shit, which is so clearly what Monica was trying to do in the period of her life chronicled by Monica and Grigoriadis’ piece.
A lot of the hate Monica gets in the first two episodes of Monica is from her fellow women. This is hardly unusual, but today her treatment in some spaces might be very different. Back in the early 2000s, feminist Internet avengers weren’t a ubiquitous presence, telling everyone to leave Monica alone — to judge not another woman’s sexuality lest we be judged. Nor were there dozens of young women there to offer, on xoJane, in comments sections, or on Tumblr, their own solidarity-tinged tales of sleeping with the boss. Instead, Monica was very much alone in the media world, even as it swirled alluringly around her. This wouldn’t be the case today.
If anything, Monica Lewinsky’s aloneness is the clear theme of the web series. She comes across as a solitary pioneer, and that is enough to make the show a convincing case for reexamining her cultural impact.