My affection for Hillary Clinton is hard to explain. It wins no fights and earns you no friends to admit feeling actual warmth, even protectiveness, toward this impossible, frustrating, contradictory, polarizing, disappointing woman. My finding Hillary intensely “likable” is weird. It doesn’t signify universal approval of her decisions. I can and do disagree with Hillary Clinton, regularly and strongly. But some part of me also hopes that Hillary Clinton is having a nice day.
I’ve come to believe that saying nice things about Hillary Clinton can be a subversive act. I recently spent some time sorting through Clintoniana dating back to the early 1990s, looking at the nasty things people have said about her and common narratives that have formed about her personality. I got a better sense of the pressures that she has to live with—even on days when Donald Trump isn’t using words such as disgusting and schlonged to describe her—and how those pressures have informed her decisions.
Unless you really take a look at those pressures, the narrative around Hillary Clinton’s “likability” is doomed to be inaccurate. Trying to parse Hillary Clinton without also parsing Hillary hate is like trying to drink water without touching the glass.
Here is one of those pressures: Hillary Clinton absolutely cannot express negative emotion in public. If she speaks loudly or gets angry or cries, she risks being seen as bitchy, crazy, dangerous. (When she raised her voice during the 2013 Benghazi Senate committee hearings, the cover of the New York Post blared “NO WONDER BILL’S AFRAID.”) But if Hillary avoids emotions—if she speaks strictly in calm, logical, detached terms—then she is cold, robotic, calculating.
You’d think the solution might be to put on a happy face, to admit to emotions only when they are positive. But it turns out that people hate it when Hillary Clinton smiles or laughs in public. Hillary Clinton’s laugh gets played in attack ads; it has routinely been called “a cackle” (like a witch, right? Because she’s old, and female, like a witch); frozen stills of Hillary laughing are routinely used to make her look “crazy” in conservative media.
She can’t be sad or angry, she can’t be happy or amused, and she can’t refrain from expressing any of those emotions. There is no way out of this one. There is no right way for her to act.
That’s just one set of examples. There are plenty more. She’s not the right age (Republicans from Mitch McConnell to Rand Paul to Rick Santorum have poked fun at her perceived dotage). There are no right politics for her to have (she’s been accused of everything from “radical feminism” to having economic policy positions indistinguishable from those of right-wing Republicans). There is no right way for her to want to be president (because she is suspected of being both “pathologically ambitious”—unlike, say, anyone else who ever thought they should be leader of the free world—and the beneficiary of marital nepotism).
You’d think, given the impressive amount of unfair and often cruelly personal scrutiny this woman faces, it would make sense for her to be pretty cautious about how she presents herself in public. Bizarre, then, that Hillary Clinton has developed a reputation in the press for seeming distant—even secretive or paranoid! It’s almost as if, after a quarter-century of being attacked for her appearance, personality, and every waking move, breath, and word, Hillary Clinton is highly conscious of how she is perceived and portrayed, and is trying really hard to monitor her own behavior and behave in ways people will accept. Which is “disgusting,” of course. We want “authentic” candidates.
Remind me: How well did the public and media react the last time she appeared in public without makeup? Or raised her voice? Or laughed? Or went to the goddamn bathroom? Or did any “authentic” thing that a real-life person does every day?
Hillary Clinton is the impossible woman. The pressures she lives under, every moment of her life, are all-encompassing. She doesn’t have an inch of leeway, a single safe option; there is no version of Hillary Clinton that won’t be attacked. So the version of Hillary Clinton we get—this conflicted, conflict-inspiring candidate, the woman who has a genius-level recall of global politics but has to assure the world she’ll spend her presidency picking out flowers and china, the lady who books a guest spot on Broad City but can’t pronounce “Beyoncé,” the woman who was decades ahead of the curve on women’s rights but somehow thinks it’s a good idea to throw in a Bush-esque 9/11 reference at a debate—is the inevitable product of these pressures.
And so is the fact that I like her. Honestly, ask yourself: How long would you make it, if people treated you the way you treat Hillary Clinton? Would you not just be furious by now? Would you not have reached levels of blood-vessel-popping rage and despair? She’s been dealing with it for decades, and keeps voluntarily subjecting herself to it, and knows exactly how bad it will get and exactly what we’ll do to her, and yet she is running for president again, and—here’s the part I love, the part that I find hard to wrap my head around—she might actually win. That is awe-inspiring.
Her story moves me as an example of a woman who got every misogynist trick in the world thrown at her and didn’t let it slow her down. On that level, she’s become a personal role model: If people dislike me, I will no longer think Oh, how horrible this is for me. I will think, Well, if Hillary can do it … Seriously, if Hillary Clinton can be called an evil hag by major media outlets for much of her adult life and run for president, I can deal with blocking 10 or 20 guys on Twitter.
But she shouldn’t have to deal with all these byproducts of a misogynist culture. So saying nice things about Hillary Clinton isn’t just something I do because I feel good about her. It’s not even something I do to annoy people. It’s a way, however small, to start shifting the cultural dialogue, to allow for a world where women aren’t suffocated or crushed by our expectations of them—a world where Hillary, and every future female president or presidential candidate, can focus on the tasks at hand, and not have to climb over a barbed-wire fence of hatred in order to change the world.