Monica Lewinsky is the activist we don’t deserve, but desperately need

Once tabloid fodder, she has reemerged a powerful force for good.

Monica Lewinsky at the Premiere of FX's "Impeachment: American Crime Story" at Pacific Design Center...
Axelle/Bauer-Griffin/FilmMagic/Getty Images

American news media has long thrived off of scandal and the respective cultural casualties it creates, and no one knows that more than Monica Lewinsky. It’s been 23 years since news broke of the Clinton affair, and the perfect storm of our nation’s political divide, hunger for tabloid gossip, and the economic prosperity of the 90s made for a country primed to eat up such a salacious story of the follies of the powerful. But in the over two decades since the story was the center of discourse, who we consider the villains and the victors has shifted. Monica Lewinsky has reemerged in the last several years to establish herself as the adult who has grown up out of that scandal, and her truth is one that holds up a mirror to our collective conscience and our tendency towards online mob mentality. Now that we are reacquainted with her, she is quickly establishing herself as a force for social good, and using her power to encourage meaningful change, most recently in her new HBO Max documentary 15 Minutes of Shame.

At the time that the affair was used to take down a president, Monica Lewinsky wasn’t given a voice. Overnight she went from being a private young woman in her early twenties attempting to establish a career in PR, to the butt of national jokes and extreme public scrutiny — all while being metaphorically muzzled. She’s spoken about the suicidal thoughts that the situation tragically inspired, and most recently she’s pointed out how absurd it was that she was labeled a whore and a tramp, while the powerful spin team of the White House protected Bill Clinton from being labeled a predator. As Ryan Murphy’s juggernaut American Crime Story franchise has begun airing its third season Impeachment, Lewinsky was involved as a producer, and America has been forced to revisit the scandal through the eyes of a young intern who was gobbled up by the obsessiveness of young love and the ruthless machine of Washington power dynamics. But Lewinsky hasn’t just stopped there in righting the wrongs of the past; she’s now focused on using her story as a case study to prevent history from repeating itself.

At the time of the Clinton scandal, social media wasn’t at the core of everyone’s lives and smart phones weren’t glued in every hand. But the 90s version of cancel culture still managed to be devastating through the early internet, late night television and on every grocery store magazine aisle — Lewinsky has considered just how crushing similar situations could be with the power of today’s technology. In 15 Minutes of Shame, she and director Max Joseph examine just how out of control our society’s impulse to shame and punish has become, and also the historical legacy of shame that it has grown out of. Lewinsky refers to herself as “patient zero,” a sort of cautionary tale that no one took the time to examine.

The documentary carefully presents multiple present-day case studies of people having been “canceled,” a now ubiquitous term that was seemingly born from a subtle use on an episode of Love and Hip Hop and then spread like wild fire. Their first examination is of Matt Colvin, the man who hoarded over 17,000 bottles of hand sanitizer at the beginning of the pandemic, only to be exposed by the New York Times and loudly vilified by all. His address in Chattanooga, Tenn. was eventually leaked and threats on his family’s lives were made. He lost his livelihood after Amazon and other retailers blocked him as a seller, and his mental health took a drastic decline. In this particular case, Colvin did do something slimy — but he argues that the NYT misled him on the subject of the piece he participated in interviews for, and that once the story went viral, the dollar amounts he was re-selling the hand sanitizer for became grossly inflated. A moving scene of Colvin being brought to tears by one understanding message from a stranger makes the viewer ask if he really deserved such widespread banishment, when corporations and millionaires profited far more giddily from the pandemic than the one guy in Tennessee who bought up all the hand sanitizers from his local Walmarts and Dollar Stores.

The documentary goes on to delve into the more nuanced instances of cancel culture, from a photograph in front of a Black Lives Matter protest ruining the life of a seemingly unaware and innocent man, to a mom and cancer research advocate getting demonized by right wing politicos for venting about Trump on Facebook. Shame carefully lays out the psychology behind why we seem to derive joy from participating in vigilante mobs of perceived justice. Even worse, it would seem from the experts interviewed that we also subconsciously just derive pleasure from the misery of others, and that we are more drawn to tweets centered on outrage and anger than we are to mild expressions of displeasure. The revelations unpacked by experts in the documentary are truly disheartening, but also eye-opening about how our human nature is being exploited and profited on by social media companies and corporate advertisers — all at the expense of our collective humanity.

The final story centers on a more insidious evolution of cancel culture: racist trolling. A young woman at American University has her college experience, and triumph as a young black woman elected student body president, turned upside down by unchecked racism and bigotry online. Her narrative also exposes the unfortunate lack of protections that Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act has created for individuals online; instead, companies like Twitter and Facebook are shielded from any litigation. Originally meant to allow for technological growth in the 1990s, the statute has created an enormous legal blindspot that leaves us all vulnerable to hate mobs online. It’s a tidy parallel to the beginning of the documentary, where themes that are two decades old desperately need to be re-examined in our present day cacophony of living online. At first glance, 15 Minutes of Shame might look like just another magnifying lens on what happened to Monica Lewinsky. But much like last year’s The Social Dilemma, it actually is a powerful film that hopefully will expand our understanding of the forces that manipulate and encourage us to shame and spread hate, and be an impetus for us to re-engage with our collective power of empathy. The documentary is worth a viewing from anyone who uses social media, and certainly cements Monica Lewinsky as a new and powerful voice in internet activism.