To those of you who don’t know who Monica Lewinsky is, she was the woman who had an affair with President Bill Clinton, which led to the impeachment of the President in 1988. Recently Monica Lewinsky stepped onto the stage and talked about her life as a publicly shamed figure for over a decade.
The Lewinsky scandal was a milestone in news production. A couple of years before, news was consumed in three formats: newspapers, TVs and radio. The Lewinsky scandal was brought to us by the digital revolution. Scripts, audios and photos were accessible whenever we wanted on the Internet. Isn’t that amazing? A scandal, a 22-year-old woman’s love affair, was so interesting and entertaining that it pushed forward the digital revolution (according to Lewinsky’s speech).
What was it that made a scandal so interesting? Besides the involvement of the President, the juicy details of the love affair and the public shaming of the young woman were both the focus of the attention. The eagerness to judge women did not happen only in Lewinsky’s scandal. Look around and we see Hillary Clinton judged as a cold-hearted woman for dedicating her life to politics. We see Taylor Swift judged as a whiny needy girl for writing about love in her songs. We see so many young girls labeled as sluts, whores just because of the way they dress, the way they talk, or the way they handle their personal lives. Our society now has become an ultimate court for judging women.
The truth hardly surprises anybody anymore. Back in 1949, Simone Beauvoir asked, what is woman? Society answered “the Other sex.” (The Second Sex, 1949, P.6) “The Other sex” referred to women who are “determined and differentiated in relation to men, while he is not relation to her; she is the inessential in front of the essential. He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is ‘the Other.'”Nowadays, we might not hold on to the belief that men are the standard of humanity, and women are the lack of such characteristics. But, women are still judged way beyond proportion. In Lewinsky’s case, a 22-year-old woman’s lovesick mistake came with a price of a decade’s public shame.
Shame, which comes after judgment, has always been one of the most powerful weapons our society uses against women. Too many girls are living under the pressure of behaving “like a lady,” but not a prude; working hard to be independent, but not a career-driven crazy woman because of the fear of shame. Shame dominates our lives and there is no way around it. The disproportional shame comes with the most horrific prices. 13-year-old Ryan Halligan was publicly shamed for his learning disabilities for over two years and committed suicide in the end. In Lewinsky’s case, the 22-year-old woman’s dreams and hopes were crushed under the shame of a love affair.
The horrific crimes of shame might not be seen everyday, but the opposition of shame, likeability, affects almost all girls’ lives. The Nigerian novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie mentioned likability in one of her most recent speeches. “I think our society teaches young girls, even older women, self-confessed feminists the idea that likeability is an essential part of the space we occupy in the world, and that we are supposed to twist ourselves into shapes to make ourselves likeable. We are supposed to kind of hold back sometimes, not to be pushy… because we have to be likeable.” Adichie perfectly described what likeability is. It is the opposite of shame; it is the concept of fitting in; it is what keeps our girls “socially appropriate”. To that, Adichie said: “that’s bullshit.”
Indeed that’s bullshit, but things are not as simple as what they seem. I wish we can all shrug off the negativities society put on us and move on with our lives, but history has been proven differently repeatedly. After twenty years, Monica Lewinsky finally said: it’s time. It took her ten years to step out of the shadow and say that she is ready to let the world admit its mistake and put a stop to the suffering of others in her shoes. It is never easy. The judgment, the shame, and then the hurt are the never-ending cycle repeating itself onto one person after another.
The only thing that we can do is to break the cycle and let the freedom sink in, a freedom to truly express ourselves without shame. The society as a whole needs to learn to pay less attention to what women are doing wrong and more to what women are doing right, learn to appreciate the difference between men and women instead of favoring one over another, learn to be forgiving of mistakes, and learn not to haste to judgment. Only when the true expression of self comes forward, can our society embrace the greatness of each individual. Isn’t that what we are all looking for?