Tuesday, May 24, 2016
On The Political Treatment of Harry Clinton, Hillary's Identical Twin Brother
Jia Tolentino at Jezebel has thoughts about David Brooks' recent column which wonders why Hillary Clinton is so disliked. Brooks thinks she needs to become warmer, more appealing, to have hobbies. Tolentino points at the invisible elephant in the room: Misogyny, or at least very gendered expectations, might have something to do with the Public Drubbing of Hillary.
I've told you before how very hard it is to judge the role of sexism or misogyny in the treatment Hillary Clinton has received over the years. That's because the number of powerful women in American politics (or, indeed, on this globe) is so small that we can't really generalize anything from those samples.
But one mental experiment is worthwhile: Imagine that Hillary Clinton has an identical male twin (never mind the impossibility of that) whose career matches hers exactly. This Harry Clinton has committed all the same political "crimes" Hillary Clinton has. Would he have gotten the same press, provoked the same primal rage from so many, been subjected to equally elaborate right-wing slaughter parties?
I doubt that, though your mileage can vary. That's because people don't expect, say, Ted Cruz to show a softer side, to tell us about his hobbies (ohmygoddess, torturing little animals?*). And I, for one, do not want to learn anything about Donald Trump's hobbies.
It's quite feasible to see all the flaws in Clinton's political career, to frown on her hawkishness in foreign policy, to criticize her shifting statements about her basic values, to not want to vote for her, ever, and to still ask if that imaginary Harry would have been weighed on an equally sensitive scale of anger and disapproval and found equally wanting.
Harry wouldn't have to be likeable, and if he had to, he could just offer to have a beer with you. Hillary sharing a beer with you? That's inauthentic, and, besides, for some men sharing a beer with a woman has undertones of flirtation, for others it raises concerns about whether women should drink at all or what a beer-guzzling woman means.
My points are that a) the possible ways of signaling likeability are not the same for men and women in politics, b) we don't necessarily demand likeability from male politicians and c) the traditional expectation that women should be likeable can clash with how we define competency**. That last aspect can results in a Catch-22.
Harry wouldn't need a justification to run for the president of the United States. Nobody would ask him if he's simply blinded by his own selfish ambition, because ambition is an admired characteristic in men, not, even now, so much in women, unless it is siphoned into indirect ambition and avid support for the husband (think of Nancy Reagan looking at Ronald with admiring eyes) or for the children.
How does one begin to disentangle that knot of gendered expectations from Hillary's personal qualifications and character? Even using our imaginary friend, Harry Clinton, doesn't get us very far, because his prior life wouldn't have included being the spouse of a former president of the United States.*** It's an impossible job, that disentangling.
Still, I smell something in the political winds buffeting Hillary Clinton that is not entirely attributable to her own flaws of behavior or personality, an exaggerated reaction, one which our Harry would not have been subjected to.
Public Health Announcement (for my emotional health!):
This post is not about Clinton vs. Sanders and it is not about Clinton vs. Trump or Sanders vs. Trump or about what each of them stands for. It's about trying to measure sexism in American politics and the difficulties of using the Hillary Clinton case for that purpose.
* A joke.
** I would think these conflicting expectations are even trickier to satisfy if a politician is not only female but also black, because of the "angry black woman" stereotype.
*** Or if it had, we'd have to change the past to too large an extent to keep this mind experiment going. A gay Harry, the spouse of former president Bill Clinton, for instance, would change the imaginary past United States into a far more advanced country than it really was.
But would such a Harry be seen as abetting Bill's philandering in the 1990s? I doubt that.