Last week, Hillary Clinton, blogger, made yet another bid to the young women of the internet. As the general election looms, are we seeing a different kind of pop-culture Clinton push through? Ana Marie Cox and Doreen St. Félix discuss.
Cox: Hillary guest-writing a goodbye post at The Toast was a sign of the times. At least it's not racist or bigoted! But it does check off a lot of boxes: millennial outreach, striving for virality (is that a word?), engaging with modern feminism. It's up there with Lena Dunham's "Hillary" sweater dress, if probably more flattering to all involved. (But who looks good in a sweater dress, anyway?)
In the primaries, millennials went so strongly against Hillary it was hardly worth asking why. It's the authenticity, stupid. As we turn to the general, I find myself wondering if she will have another chance to make her case to young people, and what kind of case she can make. My view on Hillary has always been that her message of sturdy competence is as authentic as she can get. I don't mean to damn with faint praise, either! She is Tracy Flick, and when she tries to be something besides Tracy Flick, that's when she's awkward and off-putting. Her decidedly earnest letter at The Toast is of a piece with this. I love that Nicole Cliffe asked for "funny" and the campaign didn't even try to deliver it. Instead, it's a rather starry-eyed paean to letting one's freak flag fly -- from the least freaky lady on the planet.
But as an authentic Young Person, Doreen, you're the one in a position to actually make the call. What do you think of Hillary Clinton, Internet Blogger?
St. Félix: Hillary Clinton has always had a difficult time trying to insert herself into pop culture on her own terms. Tracy Flick at least gave herself over completely to poster-ripping, lightly sociopathic rage. We respond to ruthlessness and persistence, as Trump’s popularity and the last of Sanders’s heretics show. Clinton is notoriously temperate and levelheaded. Since the primaries, we’ve seen her attempt to craft a pop persona blueprinted after Obama, which is an objectively ridiculous thing to do. Obama invented the idea of a pop culture presidency. He’s like the Forrest Gump of image permanence. He injected a massive amount of propaganda into the global consciousness -- the Hope poster, "Yes We Can" by Will.i.am — before he even took office. That’s just not Clinton.
The Toast moment is Clinton. Obviously, the number of millennial women who might have read the short post don’t necessarily constitute a huge slice in any voting demographic. I also couldn’t help but laugh, in a defeated, exhausted way, at the Democratic nominee getting the last freelance payment from a website that could have perhaps sustained itself if just one of her donors wrote a modest check. Still, I’m interested in this kind of niche outreach because it suggests Clinton’s campaign is thinking smaller — and smarter — about her image. She’d been in a double bind, and I think it’s crucial that she double down on the "sturdy competence" even harder in the face of Trumpian bloatedness. We may have felt negatively pandered to before, and to a degree I think we always will, but now we don’t have much of a choice.
Cox: Oh, you had to bring up Obama. I am going to miss the fuck out of that guy, on pop culture merits alone. I don't know if he invented the pop culture presidency (class, please open your books to the chapter on Jack Kennedy and the Rat Pack), but he's definitely the first president to master the language of social media. Some have made the argument that Obama's pop-culture fluency actually stems from having to learn two dialects of it: code-switching as an exercise that expands both sets of vocabulary. I'm sure there's some truth to that, but I think there must be more to it — something more innate that Obama has and Hillary simply doesn't. I was about to write something about "ease" or "confidence," but maybe the answer really does have to do with chromosomes? The problem with women in authority and the breezy lingua franca of popular culture is that women can't afford to not be taken seriously.
Now that I think about it, Hillary's greatest popular culture hits have been gestures that resonated with the image of competence and seriousness rather than played against it: the BlackBerry-and-sunglasses photo, obviously, and even "Delete your account." She's at her best in eye-rolling DGAF mode, a counterweight to pointlessness, stupidity, or insanity. Given that her opponent embodies all of those things, I hope that means we're going to see a lot of Hillary at her best in the coming months.
St. Félix: Do you remember this article from February? The schism between younger and older women voting for Clinton, at least according to this treatment, had a lot more to do with intellectual differences around feminism and class than it did opinions on policy. I wonder if Clinton’s courting of younger female voters will make more space for their more malleable feminism than it has in the past year, as we move toward the general?
Cox: A low-key but confident Hillary campaign, playing to her strengths and not "trying too hard" (a gendered notion itself), would be a great space for that "more malleable" feminism you mention, I think. It would appeal to younger and older women alike (though it’s true that she’s in no danger of losing them to Trump), and I can envision the opportunity for common cause and grounded debates that haven't really happened that much otherwise.
I worry that those conversations do depend on Hillary running a particularly good campaign, though. And, let's face it, she doesn't have to run a good campaign to win. The Toast letter is a hopeful sign, for sure. Can you think of any others? And, bonus round: Let's say she runs a shitty campaign (it, ahem, has happened before). What's the future of intergenerational feminism then?
St. Félix: Yes! Tone policing was always going to be an obstruction for a woman during a presidential election. (And I am obsessed with the Obamas, too, which is why I’m bringing them up again to remind myself of how Michelle, although not running herself, endured the ringer of vicious racist and sexist scrutiny in 2007). What second-wave feminists seem to have not anticipated, from my perspective, is that their proverbial — hell, their biological — daughters would come toting their own yardsticks.
I’ll admit that some misalignment with Clinton from young women is about contrarianism for the sake of it. But I also think that Clinton, by virtue of her age especially, will represent a huge reckoning in the history of intergenerational feminisms. Ah, I’m so happy you brought that topic up. Let me take the scenic route to explain.
Take Sydette Harry's "I’m Not Ready," written over a year ago to address one ghost of intergenerational feminism Clinton is loath to visit. "Readiness has also become the slogan of the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Rodham Clinton. Rather than a galvanizing declaration of devotion, the slogan is a queasy-making line in the sand."
Harry’s main argument actually isn’t about the incompatibility of intersectionality with white feminism, but she ends up reaching that conclusion by making a case about feeling. The feminism attached to Clinton insists that you must feel ready to devote yourself to her political plan specifically because you’re a woman. That had also been, by extension, the campaign strategy up until the presumptive nomination. A younger intersectional feminist is probably just not going to feel the compulsion to vote because of symbolism. You see this so clearly in the difference in allegiance between young women of color and their mothers’ generation, in particular. (More black women support Clinton than white women, however; no Democratic nominee is getting into the White House without the support of them, the cornerstone of the Democratic Party).
I see a lot of women my age get flak for calling themselves intersectional feminists, for espousing a supposedly aggrandized Tumblr term rather than something simpler, with fewer syllables. But in practice, it’s actually an incredibly accessible and alluring template for the future.
Clinton knows this, but she doesn’t really know this. That’s how we end up with gaffes like the Rosa Parks "I’m With Her" logo and the misguided "Abuela" fiasco. In reality, she won’t really have to work to get the votes of women of color, across all age groups. But she will have to work to get millennial white women! How’s that for intergenerational irony?
Cox: Let's be clear: Younger feminists aren't just critical of Hillary's symbolic and rhetorical missteps. There are actual policy areas where she falls short or has historical baggage we should hold her accountable for. Mass incarceration is the most obvious one — an issue whose feminist relevance is only unlocked through the lens of intersectionality. And then there's Bill — not just the predatory abuse of his own power, but Bill as her link to her own power. My fundamental objection to Hillary's candidacy will alway be that her career benefits from an inherently sexist (and now dated) frame: the idea that a wife is somehow an adjunct or understudy to her husband's career.
Today's feminists just don't swallow as easily the idea that being a political wife is training for holding elected office yourself, and I think that's another reason why they never cottoned to the "She's Ready" message.
And as I finished up typing that paragraph, FBI director James Comey just announced the results of the agency's investigation into Hillary Clinton's personal server. This is a reminder to me that for most Americans, the shape of her feminism — much less her contributions to The Toast — is quite far down on a list of concerns. You could argue, however, that the basic questions are the same: Can she be trusted? Does her personal ambition blind her to more overarching concerns?
In any other year, she couldn't have gotten this far without being able to give plausibly definitive answers to those questions. But this year, she's being graded on the Trump Curve, and so on questions of both feminism and general integrity, she still gets a passing grade. And that's going to be enough for a lot of people. Indeed, it's going to be enough for me.
Back when the idea of a female president was purely hypothetical, I remember arguing that she would have to be Republican -- that our country was so sexist, we'd never elect a woman who was also a feminist, and she'd probably have to be a military veteran, pro-life, and conventionally attractive. I thought we'd ask for political perfection from any woman we put in the White House. On some level, I'm happy to have been wrong. Hillary is so deeply flawed and yet still poised to take office. It's not just the glass ceiling that's cracked, but the ideal as well. Perhaps that opens up the future even more. Perhaps that speaks well of the present. Or maybe it's just a sign of how low Trump has set the bar.
Regardless: Our first female president will be a feminist, too. It's a place to start.