The Briefing Room: The Woman in 125 Rap Songs

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As a college student, and one who is both a self-proclaimed liberal and a bit too big of a fan of late night television, it’s not too much of a stretch to think that I might also be a fan of Last Week Tonight’s spunky, British host, John Oliver. If you haven’t heard of him, he’s the comedian that bought Russell Crowe’s jock strap from Cinderella Man and sent it to one of the last standing Blockbuster stores all the way in Alaska as a way to boost their sales. Oliver isn’t always about fun and games, however. The serious and thought-provoking part of his shows tend to come from his weekly features. This week, Oliver’s feature took a time jump back into the 90s, specifically back to famous 90s scandals, and how they relate to the idea of public shaming. Public shaming is a very real issue on the world stage, especially in contemporary America and particularly for citizens who had previously believed themselves to be otherwise anonymous and private citizens.

If all the talk of the 90s and the idea of public shaming didn’t already give it away, Monica Lewinsky became the key talking point. For those unfamiliar with the Lewinsky scandal, I won’t rehash every bit of history, but let’s just say that she was the former White House intern who got involved in an “inappropriate relationship” with former President Bill Clinton during his time in office. The media tore Lewinsky apart and the scandal saturated every possible media source and outlet. Comedians comprised a huge part of that media storm, and by extent, the shaming of Lewinsky.  Jay Leno was one such comedian, who unapologetically showcased a fake book on his show titled, “The Slut in the Hat” which made a derogatory reference to Lewinsky and her famous beret. Oliver has even admitted that he himself was not exempt from partaking in the Lewinsky media frenzy. But, unlike Leno and many others, Oliver made a point to publicly apologize to her this past week on national television.

So let’s get to the root of the issue which is, of course, public shaming. As I mentioned, comedians, along with the rest of the media gave Lewinsky little to no breathing room. Her entire life was made public and the criticisms and reactions to the scandal made it difficult for her to find work or generally partake in any facet of her life without media swarming around her. And, all of this was in an age before social media. Lewinsky is the first to admit that she made mistakes in her early twenties. However, regardless of party affiliation, it is not irrational to say that she also suffered at the hands of an excessive amount of public shaming and the overwhelming narrative had an excessively negative impact upon her personal life. Now, public shaming can be a powerful tool for society. When used right, it can help to keep authorities accountable or fight against harmful rhetoric such as racism. However, there have been instances when public shaming is ill-informed and wrongly tarnishes a person’s life. Or, as the Lewinsky scandal showed, this form of shaming can also be excessive and misdirected. As Lewinsky brought up in her interview with John Oliver, not a single person asked Bill Clinton if he was going to change his name after the scandal, so why should she? Yes, she played a part, but media attention also latched on to a 22 year old girl as opposed to the 49 year old man who had just as much of a role to play in the situation, if not more so. So her story brings up the question: where do we draw the line when it comes to public shaming?

I can’t say that I have some great answer to that question to supply to you with today. However, this is a question that all of us should be thinking about as we engage with media platforms. In regards to social media and its impact on democracy, the idea of public shaming fits right in. It can be a powerful tool to establish values and promote good, but it can also cause detriment to parties involved. With that in mind, I hope that if there is one takeaway from this week, it is to be mindful and informed about the information we spread, as well as who that information is affecting and if it is rightly doing so.

In the two decades since the scandal took over the nation, time and lots of healing have helped Lewinsky find a path forward. She is an outspoken activist about bullying, social media, and public shaming all throughout the world. As she likes to joke now, she’s the girl that’s mentioned in over 125 different rap songs. The truth of it though, is that Lewinsky is so much more than that. She is a symbol of the abuse of public shaming and her story is one that we can all take a lesson from.

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