LEWINSKY  AND  SHAME  

 

Monica Lewinsky and Shame: 1998 Newspaper Framing of “That Woman”
Tracy Everbach
After a decade of silence, Monica Lewinsky in 2015 delivered a TED
(Technology, Entertainment and Design) talk titled “The Price of Shame,” a few months
after she published a piece in Vanity Fair magazine. On these platforms, she criticized
and dissected her treatment by news media in the aftermath of her relationship with
President Bill Clinton. In her talk, Lewinsky noted that that digital media culture since
1998 has fostered public shaming and bullying in mass media and social media.
I admit I made mistakes, but the attention and judgment I received was
unprecedented. I was branded as a tramp, tart, slut, whore, bimbo, and of course,
‘that woman.’ I was seen by many, but actually known by few. The public
humiliation was excruciating. (Lewinsky, 2015)
This study analyzes mainstream newspaper coverage of Monica Lewinsky in
1998 to determine the ways in which news media framed her during the year the story
was exposed. But instead of examining the effects of the Lewinsky-Clinton relationship
on the presidency, as many previous studies have done, this research looks at how a
young woman, previously a private citizen, became a media phenomenon. Lewinsky
contended in her TED talk that American society has created a culture that commodifies
public humiliation through media. “The more shame, the more clicks. The more clicks,
the more advertising dollars,” Lewinsky said in 2015. Lewinsky’s “Price of Shame” talk
resonated throughout the cyber world. As of 2016, 8.8 million people had watched it
online.
Through a discourse analysis of two of the largest newspapers in the United
States, this research seeks to answer these research questions:

 

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RQ 1: How did two prominent U.S. newspapers in 1998 frame Monica Lewinsky
from the time her relationship with President Bill Clinton publicly surfaced until his
impeachment?
RQ 2: How did the newspapers portray the response of feminists to the ClintonLewinsky story?
Literature review
Much of the scholarly literature on the relationship between the president and the
intern focused on Bill Clinton, which is not surprising, since he was president of the
United States of America. His lies under oath about the affair led to his impeachment by
the U.S. Congress. Several scholarly studies referred to the “Lewinsky scandal,”
“Lewinsky debacle,” “Monicagate” and other negative terms that focused on Lewinsky,
although the studies mainly were about Clinton (Esposito, 1999; Fried & Cole, 2001;
Kiousis, 2003; Shah, Watts, Domke & Fan, 2002). These studies reaffirmed a media
narrative that the relationship was a salacious sex scandal.
Public Opinion
Several studies examined public opinion of Clinton in light of the affair and
focused on his popularity among voters amid widespread media coverage (Esposito,
1999; Fried & Cole, 2001; Joslyn, 2003; Kenski, 2003; Kiousis, 2003; Lawrence &
Bennett, 2001; Shah, Watts, Domke & Fan, 2002; Williams and Delli Carpini, 2000;
Williams and Delli Carpini, 2004). The public continued to support Bill Clinton, even
after his impeachment on perjury and obstruction of justice charges, primarily because of
favorable economic conditions and a public notion that the relationship was a private
matter. Another factor in Clinton’s public support was the backing of his wife, First Lady

 

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Hillary Clinton, along with Secretary of State Madeline Albright and Vice President Al
Gore, who argued that criticism of Clinton consisted of partisan attacks by political
opponents (Lawrence & Bennett, 2001).
News stories on the relationship primarily presented it as a sex scandal, and
characterized it as entertainment rather than serious news (Yioutis and Segvic, 2003). A
study by Fried & Cole (2001) concentrated on media framing of public support for and
opposition to Clinton, with no mention of public opinion about Lewinsky. Even an
examination of feminist attitudes toward Clinton and his actions ignored Lewinsky
(Smith & Winter, 2002). One study looked at the relationship as a “workplace romance,”
acknowledging that Clinton was the workplace superior (Powell, 2000). A study that
included coverage of Lewinsky concluded that in political cartoons, she was portrayed as
“a seductress, a bimbo, or a groupie” (Benoit, Klyukovski, McHale & Airne, 2001).
Journalism Effects
The relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky was one of the first times the
mainstream media was forced to follow a story scooped by an internet source. Matt
Drudge’s website, The Drudge Report, had been following Special Prosecutor Kenneth
Starr’s investigation into Clinton’s previous relationships with women when in January
1998 it posted online allegations of an affair between the president and intern (Williams
& Delli Carpini, 2000; Williams & Delli Carpini, 2004). The story marked the first time
in the internet age that an online source usurped the agenda-setting and gatekeeping
function of the traditional news media (Williams and Delli Carpini 2000, 2004). Agenda
setting, as defined by McCombs and Shaw (1972), is the news media’s function of
choosing and distributing stories that tell the public what is important; in other words,

 

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what to think about. Under the theory, news media set the agenda for the rest of society.
Williams & Delli Carpini’s 2004 research found that in the Clinton-Lewinsky story, other
voices besides official sources and mainstream journalists entered the fray, bypassing
traditional news gatekeepers. However, while the internet in its purest form of democracy
was supposed to give public voice to the disempowered, instead, partisan and other
biased sources arose amid the 24-hour news cycle. The Clinton-Lewinsky story fed the
public’s appetite for entertainment news--a sex scandal rather than a policy or issue story
(Williams & Delli Carpini, 2004). The public opinion studies previously mentioned
confirmed the same narrative: this story was salacious gossip.
Feminism and Lewinsky
In her 2014 Vanity Fair article, Lewinsky asked, “So, where, you might be
wondering, were the feminists back then?”
I sorely wished for some sign of understanding from the feminist camp. Some
good, old-fashioned, girl-on-girl support was much in need. None came. Given
the issues at play—gender politics, sex in the workplace—you’d think they would
have spoken up. They didn’t. I understood their dilemma: Bill Clinton had been a
president “friendly” to women’s causes. (Lewinsky, 2014, para. 49)
The story of the relationship “unearthed a fault line in contemporary feminist
theory,” argued gender scholar Juliet A. Williams in 2001 (p. 94). Williams wrote,
“feminist voices were conspicuously missing” from public discourse on the story (p. 94).
She pointed out that feminists who offered opinions on the relationship at the time
“remained deeply divided on the question of whether Lewinsky was a victim or a
perpetrator; whether her experience proves that women can use sex to get power or that
women always will be used for sex by powerful men” (p. 97). Some feminists defended
Clinton, who was known as an advocate for women-friendly policies and had appointed

 

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several women, including Madeline Albright and Donna Shalala, to Cabinet posts. He
also appointed Ruth Bader Ginsburg to the U.S. Supreme Court. Women voters were his
strongest supporters in the 1992 and 1996 elections (Lewis, 2001; Swers, 2002).
Prominent feminists at the time, such as Catherine McKinnon and Gloria Steinem,
declined to align themselves with Lewinsky. However, Andrea Dworkin took some
feminists to task, writing, “I think a lot of feminists are very distressed and disappointed
in him (Clinton), but they don’t want to say so publicly because many of them are
connected to the Democratic Party” (Dworkin, 1998, para. 13). Dworkin accused Clinton
of using women in a predatory manner, including Lewinsky. While the gender/power
dynamic was a topic of discussion from some feminists, Dworkin was correct that
feminist criticism was largely absent from the discourse (Hearn 1999; Jackson, 1999).
The National Organization for Women (NOW), in its own 1998 publication,
acknowledged that feminists had been portrayed as defending the president, even though
he had taken advantage of a young woman (Flanders, 1998). NOW’s stance was that
Lewinsky may have been the victim of a “boss/worker power imbalance” although she
had not accused Clinton of harassment. Some feminists who discussed the story treated it
as a classic power dynamic of an older married man and younger woman work
subordinate having a relationship. However, gender and sexuality scholar Stevi Jackson
argued that feminists should not excuse Clinton’s behavior, nor was Lewinsky a “classic
victim,” as she was an instigator in the relationship. However, Jackson wrote, while
Lewinsky appeared to be sexually assertive, she may not have been sexually empowered.
Her situation demonstrates the difficulties faced by women when they try to assert
agency in heterosexual relations: they are still up against the institutionalized
gender hierarchy of heterosexuality and their desires themselves, however

 

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actively pursued, remain constrained by the erotics of domination and
subordination. (Jackson, 1999)
When first asked about the relationship, Clinton lied by denying he had sexual
relations with Lewinsky and referred to her as “that woman.” Much of the media
coverage painted her as “the contemporary harlot who ‘seduced’ and ‘stalked’ the
president of the United States, making him innocent and her guilty” (Imber, 1999). A
FOX News poll at the time asked, “Is Monica Lewinsky an ‘Average Girl’ or a ‘Young
Tramp?’” (Flanders, 1998, p. 4).
Law scholar Christina Wells wrote in a 1998 essay for the William and Mary
Journal of Women and the Law that women who continued to support the president
unfairly had been labeled as either naïve or hypocrites. “As a woman I am sick of it,” she
wrote (p. 151). The relationship between Clinton and Lewinsky was consensual, not
sexual harassment, and Clinton lied about sex, something that society tolerates in other
men, according to Wells. Gender and sexuality scholar Melissa Deem (1999) asserted
that feminists were held to an unfair double standard in the media over the story.
Feminists, by the nature of their cause, women’s equality, were expected to take a stand
on the relationship, yet this put them in a bind: feminism is not monolithic. Different
feminisms embrace different viewpoints and different politics. “Feminism has been
contained and placed in an impossible situation,” wrote Deem (p. 89).
Third-wave feminism and sexuality
Third-wave feminism, which among other characteristics, emphasizes women’s
sexual freedom and sexual agency, arose in the 1990s during the time of the ClintonLewinsky relationship (Williams & Jovanovic, 2015). The notion of women’s
empowerment through sexuality and the emphasis of sexiness and “raunch culture” defy

 

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traditional gender roles in society, which prescribe that women should be pursued rather
than the pursuer (Erchull & Liss, 2013; Levy, 2005). The concept of sexualization as
empowerment conflicts with the second-wave feminist view that sexualization of women
is a product of the male gaze (Erchull & Liss, 2013; Mulvey, 1988).
Sexuality has continuously been subject to a double standard for men and women
in society. Women who express their sexuality may be considered threatening, especially,
as in the Lewinsky case, a single woman who becomes involved in a sexual relationship
with a married man. Single women and teenage girls who express their sexual agency
may be subject to scorn because they do not conform to the “good girl” image of
femininity reinforced by the dominant ideology in patriarchal society (Egan, 2013;
Jackson & Vares, 2013; McRobbie, 2009). While men and boys are encouraged to assert
their sexuality, women and girls are pressured to be passive and virginal. As Egan (2013)
notes, “The sexualized girl is a sign. She is emblematic of a fractured and corrupted
middle-class status as well as a nostalgia for times past when taste, status, age difference,
and control were believed to be more transparent and manageable” (p. 8).
When media reports emerged that Lewinsky was the initial aggressor in the
relationship, had flashed her thong underwear at Clinton, and had saved a dress that
purportedly had a semen stain on it, this fostered a perception that she was a “slut” whose
assertive behavior was outside the accepted norms of society.
The notion of a pushback against women who assert their independence,
sexuality, agency and authority was dissected in Susan Faludi’s 1991 book, Backlash:
The Undeclared War Against American Women. The 1990s were a time when feminism
was being re-assessed after the women’s movement of the 1970s. Women had made

 

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gains in the workplace and politics, earned reproductive rights and legal remedies to
unequal education funding, but gender stereotypes persisted. So did other vestiges of
inequality, including a wage gap, a lack of women in top management and on corporate
boards, a minority of women in government, and various forms of sex discrimination
(Faludi, 1991). The women’s movement also had spurred more sexual freedom for
women, in part because of a legal right to abortion and the development of effective birth
control, such as oral contraceptives. Faludi noted that this expansion of women’s sexual
independence threatened some men. “Unlike the rise of the gender voting gap or the
increasing number of women at work, this revolution in female behavior had invaded
their (men’s) most intimate domain” (p. 404).
Framing
News media consistently have framed women in stereotypical and trivial ways.
Some of these stereotypical characterizations include emphasizing women’s roles as
wives and mothers over other accomplishments; focus on appearance and trivial
attributes such as clothing, hair, and voice; portrayal of women as weak, dependent
and/or victims; sexual objectification of women’s bodies (rather than their own
empowerment); and portrayal of women as “harlots,” “gold diggers,” or any other
number of negative and incorrect generalizations (Bertozzi, 2011; Byerly, 2007; Author,
2013; Hardin & Whiteside, 2010; Rakow & Wackwitz, 2004). These underlying
assumptions continue to reinforce societal myths about women. In addition, media have
marginalized, trivialized and misrepresented women in media, a term known as symbolic
annihilation, as coined by Gaye Tuchman (1978). These types of generalizations and
symbolic annihilation continued 35 years later, Tuchman acknowledged in her 2013

 

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essay, “Media, Gender and Niche.” In Western patriarchal society, women, although a
majority of the population, do not hold a majority of power. They are relegated to roles in
a domestic, or private, sphere rather than a public one. Feminist theory asserts that the
assumption that women are valued by their appearance, that they are dependent, and that
they exist according to their relationships with men, all are connected to this patriarchal
hegemony (Donovan, 1993).
Framing differs from agenda-setting. While news frames are patterns repeated in
news media, agenda-setting is the function of the news media to define what is important
in society. Frames often are unconsciously employed by journalists and accepted by the
public as reality (Baran & Davis, 2015). Reese (2001) defined frames as “organizing
principles that are socially shared and persistent over time, that work symbolically to
meaningfully structure the social world” (p.11). This study seeks out the frames used in
1998 newspaper coverage of Monica Lewinsky.
Method
The newspapers chosen for this analysis were The New York Times, largely
considered left-leaning on its editorial pages, and The Wall Street Journal, known as
right-leaning editorially. The Pew Research Center (2012) reported that 32% of Wall
Street Journal readers identify as conservative, 41% as moderate and 21% as liberal. New
York Times readers identify 22% as conservative, 35% as moderate and 36% as liberal.
In 1998, the Journal had the highest circulation of any newspaper in the nation,
1.74 million copies, and the Times was third at 1.067 million copies (Cox, 2013). (USA
Today came in second that year.) At the time, the cusp of the digital media revolution,

 

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prominent newspapers still set the agenda for American news media (Patterson, 2013;
Shapiro, Hiatt & Hoyt, 2015; Usher, 2014).
The New York Times articles were obtained from the newspaper’s free online
archive, which from January 1, 1998 to December 31, 1998 published 724 stories,
editorials, opinion pieces, letters to the editor and other items that mentioned Monica
Lewinsky. The Wall Street Journal published 556 articles that mentioned Monica
Lewinsky in 1998. These were obtained from the ProQuest database. A majority of the
stories in both newspapers focused on President Clinton, and to a lesser extent Special
Prosecutor Kenneth Starr. Others focused on minor players in the saga. Since Lewinsky
was the focus of the research, the articles were examined and then culled to focus on
pieces that mentioned her in more than a passing reference. The final tally was 100 New
York Times articles and 75 Wall Street Journal articles.
This study takes a qualitative approach, discourse analysis, to framing. As
described by Hesse-Biber (2017), discourse analysis can reveal the dominant ideology of
society, including stereotypes, generalizations of particular groups within a text.
Discourse analysis also can reveal what is missing in a text. In this case, the text is
mainstream newspapers as representations of public opinion at the time.
The interpretive analysis began with reading all 175 articles and descriptively
coding them for themes and patterns within the text. I then read all articles again and,
using memos, identified categories (categorical codes), and followed with analytical,
more focused categories. Following Hesse-Biber and Leavy’s’s (2006) grounded theory
approach (pp. 348-349) with memo writing, I then connected the analytical codes to the

 

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theoretical basis of feminist framing. I then verified these results with Hesse-Biber and
Leavy’s (2006) qualitative validity and reliability checklist (p. 359).
Results
The following themes emerged from the analysis.
Intimate Details Revealed
The Starr Report, released in September 1998, exposed explicit details of
Lewinsky’s sex life. This was an unprecedented practice in the mainstream American
news media. The New York Times justified its publication of these details by noting that it
was “forced” to release the information because it “was a serious matter that affected the
future of the Presidency.” Executive editor Joseph Lelyveld also said, “we don’t like
printing this,” but added that anyone could find the information on the internet
(Barringer, 1998).
The information in the Starr Report originated from testimony spurred by secret
recordings of intimate conversations Lewinsky had with a so-called friend, Linda Tripp.
Tripp released these recordings to Kenneth Starr, a special counsel who was investigating
the Clinton-Lewinsky relationship. However, even before the Starr Report was released,
both newspapers published what could be described as a virtual sex tape featuring
Lewinsky. Earlier in the year, stories about a semen-stained blue dress she kept that may
have had Bill Clinton’s DNA on it, discussions about details of her sex life, stories about
her underwear, and quotes from what she thought were private conversations, all
appeared in print in two of the most prominent newspapers in the United States.
For example, The Wall Street Journal published details of her e-mails to Bill
Clinton, telling him how much she loved him (Kronholz & Quick, 1998). An editorial

 

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writer for the Journal described her as “the insecure Monica Lewinsky” and wrote about
phone sex, love notes, and quoted a clinical psychologist who diagnosed her from afar as
in “a kind of fatal-attraction scenario” (Fund, 1998, p. A30). Fatal Attraction was a
popular movie from the late 1980s that depicted a single woman, played by Glenn Close,
who had an affair with a married man, as an obsessive, out-of-control stalker.
Negative Stereotypes
The Times and Journal emphasized three main characterizations of Lewinsky.
She either was a naïve intern, a sexual predator, or a jealous girlfriend. Not one of the
stories that speculated on her character featured any perspectives from Lewinsky herself,
only speculation from columnists, journalists, and friends and acquaintances. Adjectives
describing her in both the Journal and Times ranged from “starry-eyed, ” “love struck,”
“infatuated,” to “slutty,” “flirty,” “nuisance,” to “sexual predator.” On July 9, the Journal
published an editorial urging Starr to “indict the little tart” (p. A18) if she refused to
testify to his grand jury about the relationship.
The New York Times’ columnists concentrated on her personality, behavior,
motives, activities, background, and appearance. Frank Rich, Russell Baker, William
Safire, Thomas L. Friedman, Bob Herbert and Maureen Dowd all made Lewinsky a topic
of their columns repeatedly, including at least 18 columns from Dowd. Safire and Dowd,
in particular, mocked and disparaged her. Both wrote columns about public encounters
with her. On March 9, Safire declared Lewinsky was “no object of pity” because he had
met her in a Washington, D.C., bar and she seemed “just fine” to him. “She was too
carefully coiffured, but had a sort of natural, exuberant smile that anybody, even a
President, would enjoy seeing around the office,” Safire wrote in his column (para. 13).

 

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On June 7, Dowd wrote a column that referred to “my cat fight with Monica” in which
she described a confrontation with Lewinsky at a D.C. restaurant. Upon being introduced
to her, Lewinsky asked Dowd, “Why do you write such scathing articles about me?”
Dowd conceded in her column, “I wimped out. ‘I don’t know,’ I shrugged lamely. She
sashayed away, looking triumphant” (Dowd, 1998b, para. 24).
Only one Times columnist, Andrew Sullivan, defended Lewinsky, arguing on
September 27 that she had been treated unfairly and scrutinized more than anyone
deserved. He labeled the Lewinsky coverage sexist.
She has seen the most intimate details of her private life published by virtually
every newspaper in the world, has had her mental fitness questioned by the
President and every half-baked pop psychologist who can make it onto cable
television; she has had her clothing turned into Jay Leno jokes and her weight
inspected with all the delicacy one normally expects from the supermarket
tabloids. (Sullivan, 1998, para. 2)
News stories in the papers quoted sources who described her as “flirty,” obsessed
with Clinton, “spoiled,” naïve, “a Valley girl,” “hysterical,” and discussed her previous
dating and sex life (Abramson & Van Natta, 1998; Henneberger, 1998; Stanley, 1998;
Van Natta, 1998).
From a February 8 Times article:
Beneath a shiny gloss of wealth and privilege, a rather sad, and at times, even
sordid, history spelled out: a Beverly Hills upbringing shadowed by her parents’
bitter divorce, a mediocre academic record and a lonely adolescence marked by a
weight problem, a yearning for attention, and if former lovers can be believed, a
tendency to latch onto older, married men, and cling. (Stanley, 1998, para. 12)
On September 13, in the flurry of the Starr Report, the Times published a story
giving “advice” from “experts” on what Lewinsky could do now, noting that her choices
were either to “disappear,” “marry well,” or “try to stay famous for a while.” Lisa

 

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Johnson, identified as “the author of ‘How to Snare a Millionaire,’” advised Lewinsky to
“slim down,” meet a wealthy man, and marry him.
Lewinsky Jokes
Popular culture made Lewinsky the butt of sexual jokes and parody. The Times
and Journal ran several features noting this. In June, the Journal ran one of its famed “Ahed” front-page feature stories about women working as summer interns, blaming
Lewinsky for “a relentless tide of snickers and jokes – and a bigger hurdle than ever in
their perpetual struggle to be taken seriously” (Felsenthal & Duff, 1998, p. A1). In
October, the Journal also ran a feature on women named Monica, discussing sexual
details of the Starr Report and jokes the women were hearing about their name (Carns,
1998). The Times ran a story in January recounting Wall Street jokes about Lewinsky,
noting that many of them were in “questionable taste” (Kuczynski, 1998). A June Times
story reported that because of Lewinsky, people were publicly discussing the previously
“unspeakable,” including sex jokes, Viagra and erectile dysfunction (Scott, 1998). Other
stories poked fun at her signature beret, blue dresses, Altoids (detailed in the Starr Report
as a supposed oral-sex enhancer) and the brand of tie Lewinsky was said to have bought
Clinton (Balu, 1998; Barron, 1998; Stout, 1998).
A Journal story examined what members of Generation X, which it labeled “the
Lewinsky generation,” born between 1961 and 1981, were thinking, concluding that they
were more focused on careers than previous generations, valued marriage less, and were
more tolerant of premarital and recreational sex (Farney, 1998). The Times ran a “how to
talk to kids about the president and Monica Lewinsky,” story in September (Gross, 1998).
In October, The Times also ran a feature story about Lewinsky Halloween costumes

 

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featuring berets, wigs and blue dresses (Allen, 1998). By December, the Times reported
that people were so exhausted by the media coverage that the Lewinsky jokes had
stopped (Lyman, 1998).
Characterizations of Feminists/Feminism
The Times and Journal coverage about feminist responses to the
Clinton/Lewinsky story was piecemeal and unfocused. Many of the columns, articles and
letters to the editor argued that feminists were hypocrites for supporting Clinton and
criticizing Lewinsky. Think pieces speculated on feminists’ dilemma: Should they
support Clinton because his policies helped women’s rights, or should they condemn him
for taking advantage of a young woman close to his daughter’s age?
In a January column, the Times’ Bob Herbert wrote that feminists were conflicted
because while they criticized sexual harassment in the workplace, they were supporting
Clinton. Herbert quoted second-wave feminist Gloria Steinem as saying Clinton had “not
coerced anyone” (Herbert, 1998, para. 7). In March, the Journal ran an editorial, a
column, and a think piece contending that feminists were divided on the issue (Amiel,
1998; Feminist Split, 1998; Frisby & Daerr, 1998).
In at least three Times columns, Maureen Dowd railed against feminists, noting
sarcastically, “it’s not sexual harassment if the harasser is a champion of women’s issues,
right?” (Dowd, 1998a, para. 12). By September and the release of the Starr Report, both
the Times and Journal ran stories questioning the feminist response. In an editorial, the
Journal slammed feminists for being hypocritical about sexual harassment, concluding:
“The feminists are learning what Mr. Clinton has perhaps already discovered: Your
character and your virtue are measured by how you behave when no one is looking.

 

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Peekaboo” (p. A22). In a Journal column, Mount Holyoke College women’s studies
professor Martha Ackmann called on feminists to “part company with Mr. Clinton”
because of his sexist behavior (Ackmann, 1998, p. A22). In the Times, writer Katie
Roiphe argued in a column that Lewinsky used sex as a stepping-stone for her career,
exploiting Clinton as much as he exploited her (Roiphe, 1998). And in December, James
Taranto of the Journal reported that Clinton’s supporters included feminists such as Betty
Friedan and Eleanor Smeal, but also Hustler magazine publisher Larry Flynt, who hardly
was a friend to women (Taranto, 1998).
Discussion
Like no other private citizen before her, Lewinsky endured the public airing of
intimate details of her life, including quotes from conversations she thought were private,
description of sex acts, scrutinizing of her appearance, deconstruction of her childhood
and teen years, and logging of her personal habits. She was not the first person to be
publicly shamed in mass media, but the first to become a viral sensation on the internet
after her story broke online through the Drudge Report. Other media organizations
followed the story compulsively for the entire year; The New York Times and Wall Street
Journal alone ran 1,280 articles on it. The relationship story dominated headlines and TV
screens for most of 1998 until Clinton’s impeachment in December of that year. Because
the secret tapings of her conversations were part of an official investigation by Special
Prosecutor Kenneth Starr and led to her testimony before his grand jury, The New York
Times and The Wall Street Journal justified this exposé of her personal life. While
previous U.S. presidents had become involved in extramarital affairs, such explicit details
of these relationships had not emerged in the press. Lewinsky saw her life paraded before

 

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the public, although she never had chosen to be a public figure. It was a foreshadowing of
what was to come in the 2000s as a 24-hour news cycle, social media platforms such as
Facebook and Twitter, mobile devices with cameras, and reality television shows
changed information delivery and made formerly private details public.
Not only was Lewinsky instantly catapulted into the public eye, she endured the
scrutiny of journalists, pundits, commentators and others who dissected her appearance,
weight, clothing choices, sexual habits, emotional state, childhood, and relationships with
her parents. She did not give interviews during this time, so journalists and pundits
concocted whatever analyses they desired of her life, pasted together from secretly taped
conversations, interviews with friends and acquaintances, and commentary from socalled experts who had not met Lewinsky. The coverage encompassed stereotypical
generalizations of young women, and of women who have extramarital affairs—painting
a picture of a naïve, spoiled rich girl who used her sexuality to seduce a president, and
later, a jealous stalker who tried to negotiate the relationship into help finding a job.
These news frames reflected stereotypical shaming narratives about sexualized
women who do not conform to the traditional, passive role prescribed by the dominant
patriarchal ideology. During a time in which feminism was being questioned and reexamined, Lewinsky became publicly known for her sexuality and her exertion of it. Not
only did she have a relationship with the married president, she reportedly had had
previous relationships with married men. Many of the stories examined for this analysis
portrayed her as a desperate social climber who enjoyed seducing Clinton, but who also
craved his attention. The journalists framed her as a femme fatale, much like the Glenn
Close character in Fatal Attraction: a single woman who seduced a married man, then

 

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sought revenge when he rejected her. This is reflected in The New York Times profile that
described her as “yearning for attention, and if former lovers can be believed, a tendency
to latch onto older, married men, and cling” (Stanley, 1998, para. 12).
While journalists, pundits, commentators and others dissected her appearance,
weight, clothing choices, sexual habits, emotional state, childhood, and relationships with
her parents, Lewinsky did not give interviews during this time. This gave media free rein
to make stereotypical generalizations of her and other women who have sexual affairs as
“sluts” or “harlots.” As Lewinsky noted in her TED talk, it also gave media organizations
the ability to shame and humiliate her, to treat her not as a human being, but as a
caricature.
These frames represent some of the most simplistic and stereotypical ideological
characterizations of women in a patriarchal society: That they are important only because
of their association with men. No man in the United States of America was considered
more powerful in 1998 than the president. Lewinsky’s media characterizations had little
to do with her own personality or existence; they reflected her association with Bill
Clinton and assumptions made by journalists, columnists and others. The stories told by
media at the time tended to trivialize those involved in feminism’s second-wave
movement in the 1970s. Most journalists assumed “feminists” were a united group and
failed to acknowledge the influences of third-wave feminism, which arose in the 1990s,
and other viewpoints within the women’s movement. The notion of Lewinsky as the
pursuer in the relationship has a connection with the third-wave feminist concept of
sexualization as empowerment. Instead of approaching the story that way, these
journalists relied on traditional, elite sources, including as second-wave feminist Gloria

 

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Steinem, who expressed her support for Clinton because he had long been an ally. Much
of the coverage in the Journal and Times insinuated or outright accused feminists of
hypocrisy, noting many women had backed Anita Hill when she accused Supreme Court
Justice nominee Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment. However, most of the stories
failed to acknowledge feminist thought is diverse. Newspapers have long been maledominated workplaces that reflect the patriarchal views of society as a whole and uphold
the status quo (Nicholson, 1997; Shoemaker & Reese, 1996). This is an explanation why
the ideological perspectives of these newspapers failed to explore other feminist
viewpoints and characterized feminists as homogeneous.
Limitations and Future Studies
This study looked at coverage in only two news sources: large newspapers that
dominate East Coast political coverage in the United States. It is possible that an
examination of different news sources, such as television news or magazines, may have
produced different results. In addition, the discourse analysis looked through the lenses of
second- and third-wave feminism. Other approaches, such radical feminism or cultural
feminism, could offer alternative insights.
Research could look further at public shaming and harassment of oppressed
groups in society, such as the online harassment of those who point out sexism in gaming
(#GamerGate) or cyber-bullying of lesbian, gay, bisexual and/or transgender people.
Future research also could examine whether media narratives of young women’s
sexuality have changed with the advent of social media. While social media has given a
voice to public shaming and viral releases of detailed private information, it also has
allowed feminist voices to arise in forums such as Jezebel.com, Feministing.com and

 

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other internet and social media platforms. The mainstream media no longer has the power
and influence it had in 1998. Audiences may choose from a plethora of information
sources tailored to their interests, including activist media. These newer information
sources could be changing the frames mainstream media has clung to for so many
years—frames that reflect the dominant ideology and the status quo of patriarchy.

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