Saturday, September 17, 2011

Hillary Clinton: buyer's remorse?

This past Thursday, September 15, the latest Bloomberg National Poll revealed that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the most popular political figure in America today. The poll results showed that "nearly two-thirds of Americans hold a favorable view of her and one-third are suffering a form of buyer's remorse, saying the U.S. would be better off now if she had become president in 2008 instead of Barack Obama."

I came across this bit of news yesterday afternoon and found it quite interesting given our discussion in Feminist Legal Theory yesterday morning in which we talked about the incredible amount of persistent sexist and antagonistic behavior toward Clinton. Perhaps because I was an Obama supporter, I was not fully aware of the abhorrent media bombardment of Clinton during the 2008 Democratic primary race. After our class discussion, and especially after reading the results of the Bloomberg poll, I had the desire to conduct some research and found an overwhelming, appalling amount of extremely sexist photos, quotes, web pages, and jokes about Hillary Clinton. A vast majority seem to attack what are perceived as Clinton's "masculine" attributes, such as her physical appearance, high level of competency, and non-conformity to the traditional "feminine" stereotype of being warm and nurturing. Allow me to share a few:

"Hillary Clinton is really no different than the other candidates. She puts her pants on one leg at a time just like the other guys do."

"Hillary Clinton and Rudy Giuliani should have been running mates. After all, both of them are power hungry and both of them have had serious marital problems. But the problem is that only Rudy Giuliani looks good in a skirt."

"Hillary Clinton won't commission a Presidential portrait if she's elected. She'll commission an ice sculpture instead."

In August 2009, Washington Post reporters Dana Milbank and Chris Cillizza, in the web series "Mouthpiece Theater," said that an appropriate beer for Hillary Clinton would be "Mad-Bitch" beer.

Robin Givhan from the Washington Post discussing Clinton's cleavage on C-SPAN2, stating "There wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable...To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation."

Glenn Beck, on his radio show, commenting that Hillary is the "stereotypical nagging bitch," and that she "sounds like [his] wife saying 'take out the garbage.'"

Another online compilation of sexism against Hillary (WARNING: graphic photos) includes numerous photos of Clinton's face photoshopped onto nude female bodies, some engaged in sexual acts; t-shirts that say, "Hillary Clinton can suck my conservative dick," and "Hillary Cries like a little BITCH;" and caricatures of her as the devil, among many others.

A heckler at one of Clinton's speeches

A "motivational" poster

Suffice it to say there are probably thousands of pictures, products, comments, and articles like these out there. After sifting through many of them and coming to realize the extent of the misogyny, I was (and am) quite disturbed. As "far" as women have come, they are still significantly restricted by traditional female gender norms, especially when they are in positions of power. I believe that men (and some women) feel extremely threatened by not only women who are intelligent, but women who are "competent enough" to be considered for the position of President of the United States. Women like Clinton push the boundaries of gender norms and, as we have discussed in seminar, most people still subscribing to those hetero-normative roles generally become very uncomfortable when faced with people who challenge them.

Hillary Clinton has been portrayed as cold, emotionless, a she-devil, etc., which are certainly not positive attributes. One would think that if she were to show more emotion and act more within the female norms of being warm, caring, and nurturing, perhaps she wouldn't receive so much shit for being a frigid bitch. However, when she does show emotion, she is put under just as much scrutiny, and is seen as being weak and unstable. For example, in early May 2011, a famous picture was taken of the top White House staff members (including Clinton) in the Situation Room watching the raid on Osama Bin Laden's compound that resulted in his death. It was quickly disseminated and became the most-viewed image on Flickr. The news media highly scrutinized Clinton's facial expression in the picture, which was described as wide-eyed and horrified. Many people came to the conclusion that she was "too emotional," and made the assertion that if she can't handle "big-boy" stuff like this raid, how could she handle the Presidency? Clinton decided to respond, stating that her expression was a result of her "Spring allergies," and that perhaps she was just coughing.

This hype and scrutiny that followed the release of this picture really cements my belief that women are between a rock and a hard place. If we act traditionally male (stoic, competent, strong, and emotionless), we are chided for not being feminine enough; we are called bitches, cunts, and are generally looked upon very negatively. If we act traditionally female (emotional, caring, empathetic), we are admonished for being weak, irrational, and incapable. This is a serious problem that all women face, but especially women who hold and seek to hold positions of power - positions historically held by men.

Given my account of sexism against Hillary Clinton, you can imagine my (skeptical) surprise at the results of the latest Bloomberg poll. Buyer's remorse? Really? I suspect that at least some of the two-thirds of Americans who now view her favorably and one-third who suffer from buyer's remorse contributed to the sexist narrative on Clinton back in 2008 - so what happened between then and now? My guess is that it probably has to do with disapproval of Obama since he assumed the Presidency. I believe that much of his disapproval can be attributed to the constant, ruthless attack on him by conservatives that has essentially manipulated a significant portion of the American public (including Democrats) into thinking that Obama is fully to blame for the dismal state of affairs our country is in. I find this interesting because it seems as though much of the same people and groups who made sexist comments, articles and pictures about Clinton back in 2008 are those now conducting the merciless attack on Obama that has contributed to Clinton being the most popular political figure in America. The tables have turned in a very strange way.

As much as I want to believe that these poll results are the product of a more feminist society, I don't for the reason described above: I believe they are simply the result of the fact that the right-wing has shifted its fire-breathing to the black guy. Not only is it disturbing to me to think about how successfully manipulative the GOP is, but it frightens me to think about what the narrative will be should Hillary make another bid for the Presidency in the future.


Megan said...

The criticism against Hillary Clinton you describe in your post creates an unfortunate double blind for women in politics. I remember during Hillary’s campaign when she shed a few tears at a speech in New Hampshire. The responses to this highly publicized “event” reveal how difficult it is to try to walk the fine line between femininity and competence- both traits that voters want to see in a female presidential candidate. On one hand, if she cries, it shows that she can’t handle the pressure and is too emotional. On the other hand, if she never cries, she is perceived as cold and unlikeable. What surprises me is that this little episode actually boosted Hillary’s popularity. Voters want their candidates to fit into traditional roles and expectations and there is still a general belief that women are more sensitive and emotional than men.

So, what happens when male presidential candidates cry? I looked this up and apparently, they do not do so well, likely because men are supposed to be strong and logical. For instance, Edmund Muskie’s “emotional outburst” (tears) in his 1972 campaign all but ruined his presidential bid. Muskie’s aids tried to cover his back claiming that that he had melted snow on his face, but the damage had been done. What does this show? We want a female politician to be able to cry because it fits comfortably into our expectations, but not male politicians. The call for emotion seems a tall order given that few of us really like crying in public at all, much less in front of entire country. Thus, I would much rather be expected NOT to cry in public.

One other thing I wanted to mention is that those people who simultaneously criticize Hillary for being cold and too manly confuse me. Does that mean that men are cold?

AMS said...


I agree with everything you've addressed in this piece, and it really frustrates me. The recent, incessant attacks on President Obama definitely impacted his ratings in the opinion polls. The current state of affairs in the U.S., especially the state of the economy, contributes to these opinions. For today's myriad unhappy Americans, it is only natural to blame the leadership and question earlier decisions. The "other" option--Hillary Clinton in this case--will almost always seem better when one is dissatisfied with his/her current situation.

Women of high achievement do exist "between a rock and a hard place," as you stated. In Judith Baer's piece Our Lives Before the Law, she stated that "women are punished for whatever they do, for being women."

In coming to this conclusion, Baer recounted the case of another successful woman, Ms. Ann Hopkins. Ms. Hopkins failed to receive a partnership promotion at an accounting firm because she did not fit the electing officials' idea of a woman. She was too tough and not feminine enough for their tastes. Even the fact that she had young children failed to make her feminine enough in their eyes. Instead, she needed makeup and jewelry.

I really hope that these biases do not dissuade every intelligent, experienced, strong woman from going after her dreams of leadership--especially political leadership. We need women like Hillary to run for the U.S. Presidency in the future.

Furthermore, I know plenty of brilliant ladies who frankly seem ditzy until you really ask them about their thoughts and aspirations. Honestly, these types of women would not be my first-round picks for any political office. No one should be barred from their dreams because of what might simply be a personality trait. That said, I would much prefer someone like Hillary (for a political office)--someone who rejects the societally imposed urge to mask her strength and intelligence. We, as Americans should respect women in politics for the admirable things that they say and do, not how sexy they look.