To find Hillary Clinton likable, we must learn to view women as complex beings
Whether you realize it or not, you’ve spent your entire life being trained to empathize with white men. From Odysseus to Walter White, Hamlet to Bruce Wayne, James Bond to the vast majority of biopic protagonists, our art consistently makes the argument that imperfect, even outright villainous, men have an innate core of humanity. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Good art should teach us to empathize with complex people. The problem comes not from the existence of these stories about white men, but from the lack of stories about everyone else.
That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot during this increasingly insane presidential election season. Particularly as I try to wrap my head around the fact that Hillary Clinton is on one hand the most qualified human being to ever run for president of the United States, and, on the other, one of the most disliked presidential candidates of all time. In fact, Donald Trump is the only candidate who is more disliked than Clinton. And he’s not only overtly racist, sexist, and Islamophobic, but also unfit and unprepared for office. How can these two fundamentally dissimilar politicians possibly be considered bedfellows when it comes to popular opinion?
Gallons of digital ink have been spilled trying to figure out why Clinton struggles so much with likability. But perhaps the problem isn’t with her at all. Maybe it’s with us.
We tend to talk about likability as a black or white issue. But like the old adage, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” there’s no universal component of likability. After all, erudite Barack Obama, folksy Joe Biden, and angry Bernie Sanders couldn’t be more different, yet all three are beloved by their bases. Even Donald Trump—as divisive as he is—clearly has a magnetic pull among his loyal supporters.
But Clinton is different. Even many of those who plan to vote for her admit they don’t find her particularly likable. According to The Washington Post, just 33 percent of Clinton supporters are “very enthusiastic” about supporting her while 46 percent of Trump supporters say the same about their candidate. (For the record, Clinton—like most women—tends to be far more popular when she’s in office than when she’s running for one.) Pundits usually blame Clinton’s favorability issues on her perceived caginess, her tone, and her general awkwardness when it comes to public speaking. Essentially: Clinton’s flaws make her unlikable.
But that’s not the case for male politicians. In fact, it’s often their flaws that make them likable. After all, on paper the idea of an old disheveled man yelling sounds downright unpleasant. But in practice Bernie Sanders is an utterly charming and refreshing political figure. And while one might assume Joe Biden’s frequent gaffes and penchant for using words like “malarkey” would make him seem hopelessly old-fashioned, those are precisely the qualities that have transformed him into a beloved darling of the social media age. And Clinton’s own running mate, Tim Kaine, provides a particularly interesting contrast because he shares so much of her awkwardness. Yet far from being condemned for it, he was lovingly hailed as “America’s nerdy stepdad” after his speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention.
So why is Clinton critiqued for raising her voice like Sanders, speaking hard truths like Biden, and making an awkward Pokémon Go reference we almost certainly would have dubbed a “dad joke” had Kaine said it? Why do we find their flaws likable and Clinton’s flaws off-putting? Why isn't she seen as America's awkward aunt or nerdy stepmom?
I would argue it’s because we don’t yet have cultural touchstones for flawed but sympathetic women. We can recognize Sanders as a fiery activist, Biden as a truth teller, and Kaine as an earnest goof, but we just don’t have an archetype—fictional or otherwise—through which to understand Clinton. As the first female nominee of a major political party, her campaign is in uncharted waters. As Clinton explains in a recent post for Humans Of New York:
It’s hard work to present yourself in the best possible way. You have to communicate in a way that people say: ‘OK, I get her.’ And that can be more difficult for a woman. Because who are your models? If you want to run for the Senate, or run for the Presidency, most of your role models are going to be men. And what works for them won’t work for you. Women are seen through a different lens.
And our entertainment doesn’t help us understand Clinton either. Our movies, books, and TV shows are filled with attractive female love interests, badass female warriors, hissable female villains, and bumbling female leads. But we don’t have very many female protagonists who are allowed to be flawed in ways that are messily realistic not just charmingly endearing. We haven’t been taught to empathize with flawed women the way we have with flawed men.
Viola Davis is slowly balancing the antihero gender scales as Annalise Keating on How To Get Away With Murder. But like Clinton, she's frequently asked why her complex female character isn’t more likable. And as Davis points out to Variety, that’s just not something we question about male antiheroes like Tony Soprano and Hannibal Lecter. We find those characters inherently appealing despite the fact that they’re deeply flawed. Yet we struggle to do the same with imperfect female leads. We sympathize with the self-centeredness of Louis C.K. on Louie but we can’t stand it in Hannah Horvath on Girls.
And in a roundabout way that ties back to Clinton as well. Like any human being she is flawed and like any high-ranking politician, her flaws exist on a scale that requires an insane level of cognitive dissonance to comprehend (the same cognitive dissonance that allows us to “love” Obama even as we realize his drone warfare program is responsible for the deaths of potentially thousands of innocent people). And for the record, I have no problem with people critiquing Clinton’s flaws. Criticism is a crucial part of the political process and there’s plenty in Clinton’s record worth critiquing—from the racist dogwhistling language she used to support the 1994 Crime Bill to her hawkish foreign policy style. But what does bother me is when the criticism aimed at Clinton seems so much more severe than the kind aimed at her male counterparts.
And I’m not just talking about Trump, who by all accounts has completely coasted through this election season. Data shared by FiveThirtyEight suggests that although voters under 25 are “more likely than any other age group to approve of the job Obama is doing as president” and although Clinton is essentially running for a third Obama term, she’s winning under-25 voters by half as much as he did. That’s a fairly glaring disconnect. And as my friend Alasdair Wilkins explores for Paste Magazine, Joe Biden enjoys a far rosier public image than Clinton even though he shares many of her political flaws. Despite sponsoring pro-banking legislation, mishandling the Anita Hill trial, and authoring that 1994 Crime Bill, Biden is still looked at as loveable “uncle Joe.” Now to be fair, Biden isn’t currently in the pressure cooker of a presidential race. But even if he were, I suspect we would have a far easier time conceptualizing him as greater than the sum of his flaws, as we've long been conditioned to do with men. And that’s not a luxury Clinton enjoys.
Jonathan Chait made perhaps the most radical statement of this election season when he referred to Hillary Clinton as “a normal politician with normal political failings.” It feels groundbreaking to discuss Clinton in such benign terms because that’s simply not how she’s understood. She’s at best “the lesser of two evils” and at worst a scheming Lady Macbeth hungry for power.
Which brings me to my final point and perhaps the biggest elephant in the room: Sexism. Personally, I’m not hugely interested in how sexism plays into someone’s decision as to whether or not to vote for Clinton. But I am interested in how sexism has shaped Clinton personally. And particularly how it relates to the idea—as Indira A.R. Lakshmanan and Ezra Klein have both explored—that Clinton is warm and personable in intimate settings but more distant and awkward in large ones.
In another Humans Of New York post, Clinton attempts to explain that disconnect by telling a story from her past:
I was taking a law school admissions test in a big classroom at Harvard. My friend and I were some of the only women in the room. I was feeling nervous. I was a senior in college. I wasn’t sure how well I’d do. And while we’re waiting for the exam to start, a group of men began to yell things like: ‘You don’t need to be here.’ And ‘There’s plenty else you can do.’ It turned into a real ‘pile on.’ One of them even said: ‘If you take my spot, I’ll get drafted, and I’ll go to Vietnam, and I’ll die.’ And they weren’t kidding around. It was intense. It got very personal. But I couldn’t respond. I couldn’t afford to get distracted because I didn’t want to mess up the test. So I just kept looking down, hoping that the proctor would walk in the room. I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk. Because you need to protect yourself, you need to keep steady, but at the same time you don’t want to seem ‘walled off.’ And sometimes I think I come across more in the ‘walled off’ arena. And if I create that perception, then I take responsibility. I don’t view myself as cold or unemotional. And neither do my friends. And neither does my family. But if that sometimes is the perception I create, then I can’t blame people for thinking that.
Essentially what Clinton is saying is that the stiltedness of her public persona is a kind of self-preservation tactic born out of years of brutal misogyny. And while that doesn’t excuse the fact that she sometimes struggles with transparency, it transforms a dehumanizing flaw into a relatable one. It gives her a humanity that’s too frequently missing from the discourse around her.
Just as in order to understand Bernie Sanders you have to understand what it means to be an activist, in order to understand Hillary Clinton you have to understand what it feels like to face a lifetime of sexism. Unfortunately, while explorations of women grappling with inequality aren't completely absent from our entertainment, they’re also not incredibly common either—particularly in stories set outside the Mad Men era and particularly in media aimed at men. That’s why the Marcia Clark-focused episode of FX’s The People Vs. O.J. Simpson from earlier this year felt so revolutionary; it offered insight into the personal cost of sexism that many people—including many women—don’t often think about.
What’s especially telling is that the group most likely to enthusiastically support Hillary Clinton are older women in the workforce. As Jill Filipovic explores for The New York Times, that’s because unlike men or younger women (who deal with different feminist issues), working women are more likely to have been personally exposed to the kind of sexism and discrimination that has shaped Clinton. And once they understand Clinton’s experience, they like her better for it. They start to see her not as a Lady Macbeth, but as a Leslie Knope, a Hermione Granger, or a Paris Geller. And crucially it’s not just the idealized strengths of those fictional women that echo in Clinton, it's their relatable flaws too.
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