Somewhere in the discourse about Hilary Clinton something is missing. There is a gap, a severe break in the depth of understanding. Nothing illuminated this discontinuity more clearly than her very shocking and unquestionable defeat during this 2016 presidential election. Hilary Clinton missed the mark with some very important voting demographics, a painful fact to admit, but the numbers cannot be ignored. A reality has emerged that for many women is hard to swallow. Hilary Clinton was not the candidate for every woman in America. Loyalty to Hilary because she is a woman was almost a non factor in this historic election. Somewhere along the line, the perception of Hilary Clinton and who she is became very muddled, bogged down in the contradictory narratives and rhetoric. These inconsistencies impacted many groups of voters.
Before the election there was a visible divide among older feminists and younger feminists in their support for Hilary Clinton. Older feminists seemed to support her fervently. She was a woman of their generation and of their feminist movement. She understood the struggle women went through and proved with toughness and a ton of hard work that what once seemed impossible no longer was. Younger feminists often did not see Hilary’s candidacy in this way (Do They Really Respect Women?, #ImANastyWoman, A Rhetoric of Inclusion). It was not enough that she was a woman. This was not enough of a change for them in a change election. In their eyes she was part of the establishment, a woman who had sold herself to the patriarchy in order to get ahead and this fact could not be reconciled with the newest wave of feminism and its supporters. Post-election we have also come to see how Hilary Clinton’s identity, or a least the perception of her identity alienated not only new wave feminists, but women in general, a fact that is equally heartbreaking and fascinating. For more on this check out these articles: Bernie Bros and Woman Cards: Rhetorics of Sexism, Misogyny, and Constructed Masculinity in the 2016 Election.
This difference in perception of Hilary Clinton among feminists appears to coincide with a difference in how feminism is defined. Older women came of age during the second wave of feminism, which was fueled by a renewed sense of the fight for justice (It only took 168 years, Women’s Rights are Human Rights, Hillary Clinton’s Breakout Moment at Wellesley College). New age feminists, no longer believe that men and women should have equal rights and that women should strive to be considered equals in the patriarchal gaze of masculine society. Rather they believe that society should learn to embrace women for all they have to offer, whether those traits come in a stereotypically “feminine” form or not. It is in this newly retooled definition of feminism that some level of disconnect seems to have developed between these new feminists and Hilary Clinton, a long standing feminist success story. The gaps in her identity left many women, not just liberal women, with gaps in their own understanding of Hilary Clinton, which eventually created a schism that proved insurmountable.
Hilary Clinton is often viewed as displaying masculine characteristics. Clinton herself has shared in this that she has gone through experiences in her life that she believes led her to be more closed off and unemotional (The Election that Changed Everything for American Women). She had to become tough, she had to hide her emotional responses situations in order to avoid being viewed as weak, but in turn her attempt to portray toughness also brought her tons of criticism for her lack of femininity and typical feminine qualities (Behind the Stare). Clinton is often perceived as subverting traditional gender roles (Hilary’s First 100 Days, Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing Coverage). She is seen as cold, calculating, unemotional. In terms of her foreign policy she is often referred to as hawkish, looking for her next attack.
All of these depictions paint her as not feminine, at least not in the confines of a traditional definition of femininity. Mass media at the very least promotes this portrayal of Clinton as masculine (Clip from Miss Representation: Who Represents You?, Cable News Has a Sexism Problem, Hillary Clinton as Archetype: Queen, Warrior, or American Pioneer?). At the very most, they are the creators of this view. Mass media, including the increasingly pervasive role social media plays in our lives is in a unique position to shape our very thoughts (Making Rhetoric Retweetable: How Social Media is Changing Political Analysis). Many times citizens do not realize how what they hear in the media makes its way into their actual beliefs. If the media promotes a narrative that Hilary Clinton is cold, calculative, power hungry and part of the establishment, then that is exactly what people see. There might be another side to that story, in other words, there might be plenty of instances of Hilary Clinton being warm, caring, loving or fighting for puppies and sick children, but if no one gets to see that narrative, then it might as well not exist.
Ciaobellalou states in her post on Hillary Clinton’s Benghazi Hearing Coverage, “If her displays of emotion are authentic, then she must be out of control, incompetent as a leader. If she is competent, capable of leadership, then her displays of emotion must be inauthentic—even manipulative.”
This is the dichotomy of Hilary Clinton, the double bind between femininity and competence. For Hilary Clinton, the dominant narrative available for public consumption lacked depth. Femininity or traditional feminine qualities were absent and therefore that image of Clinton was not what garnered attention from the American public.
Many of these issues with Hilary Clinton’s perceived “masculinity” can be linked to her visual delivery and the comparison between Clinton and other women in public life. (Aristotle’s Virtues As Related to HRC’s Image of Untrustworthiness, Newly Redesigned HillaryClinton.com Allows Users To Fully Customize Issues Page To Suit Own Preferences, To the First Lady, With Love, NOVEMBER 8, 2016…ELECTION DAY OR MOTHER’S DAY?, Michelle Obama: Beyond the Rhetorical First Lady, Hillary Clinton: Conservative ideas or Conservative Rhetoric?). Patriarchy is entrenched in the very understanding of power whether there is societal consciousness surrounding this issue or not.
Containment Rhetoric in American Politics states, “politics and political behavior are seen as masculine endeavors” and that “in our society women who are aggressive and autonomous have been seen as deviant and have been considered unacceptable and undesirable.
Hilary Clinton, just by nature of her desire to insert herself into political life during her husband’s administration placed herself into that sphere and thereby opened herself up to the irrational criticism that accompanies women with their very entrance into the public sphere. Melmmelrh notes in The Double Standard and Clinton’s Visual Delivery, “When the scientists in the video compared these reactions to actual election outcomes, overwhelmingly the candidates who were perceived to be the most masculine won political races. It is clear then, that in the American psyche, a president is expected to look like an older male, usually white, with a strong jaw line. Thus, any candidate who does not fit into this mold, whether for gender, race or other reasons is subject to heightened scrutiny, otherwise known as double standards.” This idea is further confirmed by annapealman’s post on Gender and Visual Rhetoric.
Clinton encountered issues with her image very early in her life as a public figure. After her husband’s loss in the 1980 gubernatorial race in Arkansas, Clinton was forced to get make over. She died her hair blonde, got contacts and wore more visible make up. The message was clear, if Hilary Clinton wanted to have success in public life then she would have to appear more feminine. This process was a painful one for Clinton, who wanted to be judged on her merits, not on her looks (For Hillary in Arkansas, First Came Rejection. Then Came Rebranding) but unfortunately for women then and in many cases, women now, looks and capability have not been separated in terms of a viable and likable person. Hilary Clinton had to conform to an accepted image of femininity, or else her image would effect her husband’s, a fact doubly harsh in its actuality. A great deal of thought is put in to how women present themselves to the world. It is often a calculated, exacting process, mixing seriousness with attractiveness, capability with aesthetics. This is especially true for women in public life (Nobody’s Looking at You, Jewel Purpose, What Hillary Wants). Attempts to subtly feminize Hilary Clinton through her outward appearance were constant throughout her political life, incessant attempts to make the voting public at ease with her, to like her and trust her as a person. In order to do that she had to fit the feminine ideal, but a feminine ideal that was carefully manipulated to also convey knowledge and ability, a line that has proved endlessly hard to walk throughout her career.
Throughout Clinton’s entire presidential campaign the media outlets spoke endlessly about her campaign’s attempts to humanize Hilary, a word that often seemed to become a synonym for her feminization. The attempts to humanize or feminize Hilary Clinton have extended far beyond just changing her physical appearance. There were endless attempts to portray Clinton’s seriousness and intelligence as a positive, something to be judged separate from her gender. A side effect of her consistent quest for likability, not to mention the unfortunate staying power of her email scandal, was an impact on her trustworthiness. Hilary Clinton’s campaign tried to combat this issue by attempting to create a different narrative
There were many attempts to make Clinton appear humorous and relatable to younger voters, a demographic the her numbers were notoriously lacking in (A Deadpan Hillary Clinton Visits ‘Between Two Ferns’, Iconic Hilary, Do You Trust Her?, Clinton on the Call). She ran advertisements that featured individuals of all difference races, ethnicities, ages, sexual orientations, and political affiliations, all sharing why they were going to vote for Hilary Clinton and the reasons they wanted her to be president. These advertisements often focused on this idea that Hilary Clinton’s “establishment” status was a positive for her because she understood the inner working of politics in America and could get things done. Her knowledge and experience were framed not negative traits, but rather positive ones that people should want in their commander and chief.
Bill Clinton gave many personal anecdotes about Hilary most notably at the DNC, trying to reshape the public perception of Clinton (Bill Clinton at the DNC: “She’s the best darn change-maker I ever met”) But in the end, Hilary’s biggest obstacle in her campaign was not her opponent. It was herself, her past, her political history and without a doubt her gender. All of the attempts to rebrand Hilary Clinton turned out to be inadequate and instead created a great deal of confusion about her actual identity and intentions. She was never able to overcome her unfavorables or able create the needed amount of distance between the public’s harsh perception of her to give real life to the image of Hilary Clinton as a caring, dedicated and knowledgeable politician.
Clinton spent the majority of her life in the public eye trying to make the American people believe that she was essentially, someone they would like. However, what mattered at the end of the day was not her competence or experience, but her image. For many American women, Clinton was a hero of their cause, a tough and daring woman who put her head down and pushed her way through to success, the first and only woman to ever be on the cusp of doing what once seemed impossible. This is especially true for women of Hilary’s generation. They seem to understand why her outward persona might seem cold or unemotional. In their perception Clinton had to make it through a world that did not want her to succeed, which was not and very often still is not an easy task.
However, many Americans did not perceive Hilary Clinton and her political career in this way. The contradictory nature of Clinton’s public persona, the goals of her political life, her numerous “scandals” that the public was privy to, the expectations of her gender and her constant attempt to combat these stigmas was in the end a lethal combination, not only for Hilary’s potential popularity among people from the opposite party, but for her popularity among voters in her own party. They might not have voted against her, many even voted for her, but they did not show up in the numbers needed to get her elected. Voters were not “enthused.”
We are still left with realities to face, one if the most puzzling of which is the inconsistent levels of support for Hilary among women, and the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton among many women who would identify as liberal. Hilary’s career was full of contradictions, contradictions between who she was and who she had to be, contradictions between desired femininity and perceived masculinity, contradictions between authenticity and competence. She walked these lines carefully, trying to become someone who most Americans would like and respect, but she was fighting an uphill battle. This incessant pull between extremes left many women, even liberal women with the same sense of a lack of authenticity that much of the voting public perceived. This lack of authenticity in her public depiction left many with the question: who exactly is Hilary Clinton, a question that inevitably leads to the question of, can we really trust her? It left new wave feminists questioning, does Hilary Clinton really believe that society should accept, empower and value women, or does she believe that women have to do whatever possible to mold themselves to a male dominated society? Would Hilary Clinton have been the right woman to empower all women and propel women forward in the eyes of their male counterparts, or did the entrenched nature of her divisiveness stand in her way? The importance of answering these questions cannot be understated. Women must take their rightful place as equals in the political and ideological sphere and that can only be done with a sense of collectivity, which unfortunately did not come to fruition in this 2016 Presidential election.