Mirror Mirror - 2019

Public Shaming: The Scarlet Letter of the 21st Century

By Jennifer Allen

Thanks to the internet it's never been easier to pile onto a public shaming. In fact it's now one of America's favorite pastimes. ~ John Oliver

If you're like me, part of our standard high school English curriculum was to experience Nathanial Hawthorne's 1850 novel, The Scarlet Letter. We all had to read along with Hester Prynne as she's accused of adultery (to which she did commit willingly), gets caught because she became pregnant from the experience, and is then basically branded with a giant red A on her chest when she refuses to give the name of her “fellow sinner".

In the book, the A initially symbolizes Hester's adultery, but later on it symbolizes her ability to help people, in spite of it. Over the course of the story she begins to embellish the A with embroidery and wear it proudly on all of her dresses. She may live her life as a criminal, yet Hester never ceases to do as much good as she can. In helping the needy people within the selfsame society that once shunned her, her image is somewhat restored as time goes on.

Fast forward to the mid 1990's. A young woman of 22 receives the chance of a lifetime as an intern in the White House. Within two years, she was not only working in the White House as part of the Department of Legislative Affairs, but she was also intimately involved (somewhat) with one of the most powerful men in the world.

That young woman was Monica Lewinsky.

After the word broke of her relationship with Bill Clinton, the world essentially gave Lewinsky a pop culture status, and not in a good way. She didn't wear a Scarlet Letter on her chest as Hester did, her name alone became that. While Clinton was impeached over the whole fiasco, he eventually finished out his term and walked away mostly unscathed. Lewinsky was not so lucky. Most of the jokes that emerged (and I use the term “Joke" loosely) were either saying that she was a slut or were ridiculing her physical appearance. Truth be told, this was in a world before social media or where curvy women are more accepted. It's taken 20 years for the world to finally have people who hear her name and don't immediately know who she is.

I'm actually the same age as Monica, and I remember being a young twenty-something hearing about what happened. I kind of shrugged it off at first because I knew my history. Clinton is not the first or last man of power who would use that power for sex. Having a paramour (man or woman) has been a concept for ages. Granted with the changing social climate at the tail end of the 20th century, being a mistress was seen in the same light as being a prostitute. Whether the affair was between two consenting adults or not, the non-married party would be considered a “homewrecker" at best and much more explicit labels at worst.

We are now in a new world where the internet grabs onto just about any scandal and takes the volume up to max. Social media has created its own Scarlet Letter in the form of saving anything that anyone places online. We as the anonymous “Mob" collectively see someone who's done something (whether good or bad) and suddenly just about every person with a keyboard, microphone or camera must make a comment about it. Words like “gone viral" and “making the rounds on social media" are now common parts of our daily speech.

We're basically goldfish except instead of discovering a new castle in our bowl every 9 seconds, we find something new to be outraged about online. ~ John Oliver

While most online outrage has been negative, occasionally it does have some positive outcomes as well. Sometimes bringing to light some inappropriate societal behavior can make the world we live in a better place. Some people who have said or done less than admirable things I think should be shamed and made to wear their own Scarlet Letter in the form of internet searches. All I ask is that people should at least have all the facts in place before suddenly labeling someone and potentially ruining his or her life.

Case and point: Monica Lewinsky. In her own words, she was “… patient zero of losing a personal reputation on a global scale almost instantaneously." She was one of the first who felt just how humiliating it can be when “The Mob" cast their own Scarlet Letter upon her in the early days of the internet and media outlets tossing around about every derogatory thing they could about her situation. If those self-same jokes were made now, I think the online outrage would probably flow in a different direction.

When somebody sees you and acknowledges your humanity in the smallest way, it really can make a world of difference. You don't know, it could even save someone's life. ~ Monica Lewinsky

For some they say, what doesn't kill you makes you stronger. In the years since the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal broke, Monica now holds her head up high. “Hope" is such a simple word that holds a wide breadth of meaning. Monica has endured so much more than any of us can even dream of, but like Hester Prynne she has embroidered upon her own Scarlet Letter and now uses her experience to help others. She is now huge advocate tackling online shaming issues and anti-bullying. She has hope and most certainly a tougher skin because of what happened to her just two decades before.

So I say, before you become so quick to judge and toss your own bit of outrage out there onto the web, just keep in mind the damage (and the sheer amount of Scarlet Letters) it could potentially produce. Not many people can say that they can relate to Monica Lewinsky's life, but many of you can certainly become just as kind and strong as she became instead by accepting that all of us not perfect.


Jennifer Allen works at Saathee and is also a Podcaster, Blogger, Photographer & Graphic Artist.