On her gravestone, Hillary Clinton would like the phrase, “She’s neither as good nor as bad as some people say about her.” And perhaps that sums up Clinton’s public persona in a nutshell.
In Hillary, Hulu’s four-part documentary series, we’re reminded of the immeasurable success that Clinton has achieved throughout her lifetime and the dozens of glass ceilings that she shattered in her wake. But we’re also reminded of the reputation that precedes her and the patriarchal society that built it.
Hillary Clinton has always faced an insurmountable level of scrutiny compared to her male counterparts. For decades, critics belittled her appearance, making fun of anything from her glasses to her hair to her now-iconic pantsuits. (In one particularly delightful exchange during the documentary, Hillary expresses exasperation over this particular brand of misogyny, saying, “Do you think anybody talked to Bernie Sanders about his goddamn shoes?”)
But the vitriol spewed at Clinton has always stretched well beyond her looks, the source of venom always muddled and shifting. And Clinton was never able to keep up with the ever-changing societal expectations of what a woman, particularly a woman in power, should be.
When Clinton was in law school, fighting to stay afloat in a sea of men, she was taught that she could only excel in a man’s world if she let her hard work speak for itself; as a result, she was careful never to complain about the unfair circumstances that resulted from merely being a woman. Clinton learned that compartmentalizing her feelings and relying on her intellect was the only way to level the playing field in a male-dominated world and to prove herself as a worthy competitor. She recalls,
“In those days, you got no points for being emotional. You’d get no points for trying to fight back or defend yourself. You’d just put your head down, you worked hard, you got to where you were going despite whatever obstacles were put up.”
However, this instinct proved to be a challenge when she moved to Arkansas to support soon-to-be-husband Bill’s political career, where Clinton was suddenly expected to be charismatic and personable and traditionally feminine. She was told that taking on Bill’s last name, as a traditional housewife would, would help Bill win the governor’s seat. And, despite having decided at age nine that she wanted to keep her maiden name, she ultimately conceded.
Expectations shifted once again when Bill’s career propelled Clinton to the White House as First Lady, where she was initially celebrated for her work on healthcare reform before being vilified for it and forced to take a step back. And while she was initially met with sympathy when Bill’s affair was exposed, that sympathy quickly turned to scorn when Clinton decided to stay in the marriage. Clinton was constantly walking through a minefield, never sure when her next step would be a fatal one.
After decades of mixed messages and changing cultural norms, it’s no wonder that Clinton would become careful with her words and her movements. After all, she has endured a lifetime of people telling her that her authentic self isn’t good enough.
So that’s why it’s particularly upsetting that the stoicism she so carefully cultivated as a defense mechanism was in turn weaponized against her.
In recent years, Clinton has been labeled as guileless and cold, calculated and unemotional. She has been deemed everything from conniving to disingenuous to an outright shrew. But those same attributes were also how Clinton was even able to rise in the political ranks in the first place and the only way she could make a name for herself in a society so vehemently against a woman in leadership. The world demanded that Clinton be as stereotypically levelheaded and unemotional as any man and then vilified her for it. The goalposts kept moving and the rules kept changing. And the elusive “electability” factor always seemed just out of reach.
Clinton’s Director of Communications, Jennifer Palmieri, recounted media-training Clinton, trying to boost Clinton’s “likability” in her never-ending quest to frame Clinton in a more positive light. She recalls asking detractors,
“If you could tell her a woman on the world stage who does it perfectly, then she could emulate that person. And no one ever had an answer. No one ever had an answer for who that woman is.”
Particularly in the wake of Warren’s exit from the presidential race, it’s discouraging to wonder how much more experienced any woman could be, how many accolades they need to collect or milestones they need to reach in order to be considered a qualified candidate. Hillary Clinton was the best person for the job. She had the ideas and the intellect and the expertise to put her plans into fruition. But all of those things proved not to be good enough.
And ultimately, the documentary leaves us to wonder: will any woman ever be considered “good enough” to be president?
Hillary is now streaming on Hulu.