Monica Lewinsky cut short an event in Jerusalem on Monday after an interviewer asked her a question about former President Bill Clinton -- a topic she said she had told her interviewer, Yonit Levi of Hadashot News, in advance to avoid. "I'm so sorry, I'm not going to be able to do this," Lewinsky said before walking off the stage.
Later, she issued a polite statement via Twitter, saying she "left because it is more important than ever for women to stand up for themselves and not allow others to control their narrative."
Immediately, others tried to control the narrative.
"Monica Lewinsky storms offstage in Israel after 'off limits' Bill Clinton question," blared USA Today. The AP and CBS used the same "storms offstage" language.
Conveniently, there is a video that plainly shows why it is quite a stretch to conclude that Lewinsky "stormed" anywhere. She was instead direct and polite -- apologetic even. No rage, no storm, just a direct assertion of her already stated boundaries.
To begin with, a truth that certainly every woman knows: women who assert themselves clearly, as Lewinsky did, are often branded as constitutionally "angry" -- and angry women, it's understood, are illogical hysterics. Angry men? They are rewarded: they are seen as more competent than men who express sadness or regret, and their anger is read as righteous and authoritative.
Just look at our current President, who draws crowds with his rants and his rage-chants of "build a wall" and "lock her up." A woman who exhibited even a fraction of that level of unfettered rage would be cast as simply deranged. He's the leader of the free world.
Had Lewinsky exhibited anger, it would have been more than warranted. This is a woman, now in her mid-40s, who has spent her entire adult life defined by a dumb affair she had as a 20-something intern. She was bright and ambitious enough to score a White House internship in the first place. Had her affair with Clinton never happened (or had it never been discovered), it seems likely that she would have gone on to have a successful career; it's less likely she would be famous, but she probably would have gotten to chart her own course.
Instead, she was at the center of a national scandal. Clinton weathered it well -- he avoided losing his job, and went on to form a prominent global foundation and see his spouse nearly become the first female president. Lewinsky, on the other hand, remains defined by a few months of the mid-90s.
She's tried to break away in seemingly any available direction, getting a degree from the London School of Economics, writing a memoir, doing reality TV, and even trying a brief stint as a handbag designer. She kept winding up a punch line.
And so she has leaned in to confront what, unfortunately, she knows an awful lot about: being the target of online and tabloid mobs. Her anti-bullying campaigns aren't the soft pap of the current first lady, who is, inconveniently, married to the bully-in-chief. No, Lewinsky speaks from experience and from the heart. She knows personally the perils of being seen as only a subject for mockery instead of a real person.
She's also figuring out how to do this work while, for the first time in her life, successfully shaping her own narrative. The Clinton affair is a part of her story, but that doesn't mean that if she's invited onstage she's obligated to talk about it. She's not an elected official or someone in public office. She's an advocate for a cause -- and she wants to talk about that, not what she did 25 years ago, and not how a more powerful man should address her today.
She did what a great many celebrities and less-than-celebrities do before public appearances: she agreed to particular parameters for the conversation, and she expected that agreement to be upheld. The interviewer clearly thought it was OK to disregard this, knowing Lewinsky would be the one to pay the price and look like a diva if she refused to answer or cut the interview short.
And indeed, that's what happened with the "stormed off" headlines. Luckily, Lewinsky has had decades to become a sharp advocate for herself. Instead of apologizing, she's telling the truth about what happened, and making clear that this isn't just about one bad interview; it's about an expectation that women are compliant and contrite even when someone -- another woman, in this case -- knowingly and purposefully ignores a woman's stated desires.
Monica Lewinsky walked off a stage and that tiny act of self-preservation and self-respect has become an international news story. Good on her. Next time maybe she should storm.
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