By Lucy Shanahan
Edited by Dean Leibowitz
There is a photo from 1996 of a young woman in a beret hugging her boss, capturing her at the brink of a new love for the wrong person. Fast track to two years later, that image was plastered on the front page of every newspaper, tv news station and littered through the blogosphere.
The woman in the picture was Monica Lewinsky, the twenty-two year old who fell for the then President of the United States, Bill Clinton. In a recent TED Talk, Lewinsky describes how that image became the iconic visual impetus for a digital shaming on a global scale. And this mass humiliation didn’t even have a name yet.
Cyber bullying is a term we now know all too well. It viciously and publicly took its first victim in Lewinsky. The internet was still new, it was the first time that anyone could access information at their fingertips and comment on any story, at any time. During the course of the investigation, Lewinsky was forced to confirm 20 hours of intimate phone conversations that had been recorded secretly. The transcripts were distributed online, accompanied by explicit details of the affair. The public was able and encouraged to read up on the gory details: how often they had phone sex, how many times she orgasmed, and how after an encounter, the President masturbated into a bathroom sink. Overnight, Lewinsky transformed from a private White House intern to a disturbed home wrecker whispered about in every hallway of America.
Online trolls are the pillars of our culture of public humiliation. They leave no starlet unturned, no scandal untouched. Unlike tabloid magazines that scrutinise celebrities for fun, cyber bullying is the cruel and targeted abuse of individuals. Most of the time, the writers at Famous Magazine or NW create wildly glamorous tales of debauchery based on one picture from TMZ with no actual access to the subject. The staff isn’t stupid – they know they’re taking the piss.
All of this is okay if we’re in on the joke. But here’s the catch – not everyone realises they are literally making shit up. Not everyone knows that images are manipulated and sources are fabricated. Nobody is a ‘close friend of Brangelina’. Media is at the forefront of naming and shaming, and it’s their stories that begin the vicious cycle of online abuse. Gone are the days when stories existed solely in print – now everyone has something to add, and online, those comments aren’t swallowed into the 24-hour news cycle. The twitter vultures left out in the cold believe everything and question nothing, and they won’t hesitate to attack.
Lara Bingle cops all sorts of stone throwing in the Australian media playground. Not only publications, but individuals go out of their way to shred her. Bingle is berated for being too thin, too fat, too stupid, too sexy, even for hindering Michael Clarke’s batting average. The screen allows the commenter to disassociate from the person they’re degrading, and so too is forgotten that their words have power.
At the arrival of Bingle’s son, Rocket Zot, the media made fun of her choice of name. In particular, a sharp piece was published in The Daily Telegraph, prompting readers to contribute and share their own criticisms. Everyone is entitled to their opinion, which includes writing comment pieces that mock celebrities and their children’s names, however insensitive they may be. But this was just another example of poorly researched journalism written in vain, the kind that seems to flourish in the Australian media landscape as readers click, comment and share gossip articles that are intended to inflict pain. Because as we later learnt from Bingle herself via Twitter, Zot was the affectionate nickname of her late father, chosen to carry his spirit through a new generation in a lovely way.
Of course, cyber attacks are just as prevalent in the private sphere – 64% of females in years 6 – 12 reported being cyber bullied in 2014 – but these cases differ in nature and treatment than those that are splashed across every major news outlet. Maybe this digital shaming is conducted with a warped sense of social justice. The celebrity culture that we’re obsessed with also makes us feel threatened enough that we need to take them down a peg. We forget that the person behind a photoshopped bikini shot is just that – a person. Cloaks of anonymity breed an unhealthy confidence and provide an escape route for the seething.
Cyber bullying is unforgiving and relentless. It was the consistency and potency of the online attacks that plunged Lewinsky into a dark spiral of depression. She revealed how her mother sat by her bed every night, forced her to shower with the door open, terrified that she would literally be humiliated to death.
The link between cyber bullying and suicide is clear. Charlotte Dawson’s story is sadly one we’re all familiar with. Dawson struggled with mental illness, but it was cyber bullying that led her to attempt suicide in 2012 and finally to take her life in 2014. She actively stood against bullying and encouraged others to retweet abuse on Twitter to draw attention to the abuser, busting their anonymity. But for all that we hear about the dangers of cyber bullying, we hear less about how it can be curbed.
What’s worse is that we perpetuate this culture of shaming by blaming the victim. In fashion, we demand that models have a ‘thick skin’ and criticise those who aren’t tough enough to take it. To be affected by threads of vitriol aimed specifically at you is not a sign of weakness. There is an abundance of strong women who are bed ridden for a day because of something they read online, just ask Taylor Swift or Lena Dunham. Fragility is on a spectrum, as is resilience.
So where can we look to for change? Cyber bullying in the fashion industry is certainly pertinent, but there are a number of individuals and companies who are paving the way for an online culture that rejects the trolls. We’re seeing energetic, new models thwart traditional standards and embrace beauty in diversity.
Winnie Harlow is helping to drive this movement. Diagnosed with Vitiligo, a rare condition that changes the pigmentation of skin, she stormed the runways at Toronto and London Fashion week and landed two international campaigns with Diesel and Desigual. Her condition is not something that can be hidden, nor should it be. Instead, she uses it to fuel her career and inspire young women to embrace their difference.
Transgender models are gaining similar momentum in the industry. Isis King is featured in the latest American Apparel campaign. Andreja Pejic became the face of androgyny before walking runways around the world and being named one of Forbes’ most beautiful people in 2014.
There is more to a model than her head shot. There is more to Lewinsky than a bad beret in 1996. Lewinsky is no stranger to the ‘empathy crisis’, as she calls it. The only way we can hope to change a culture of cyber bullying is to call out the trolls by cherishing beauty in every corner. Monic Lewinsky is taking back her narrative. Let’s allow everyone to write their own story.