Hillary and the Feminine Gaze

Susan Faludi discusses women writing about Hillary:

Edited by Susan Morrison
HarperCollins, 254 pages, $ 23.95

Let’s imagine this book’s concept—30 well-known women writers talk about how they “feel” about Hillary Clinton—applied to 30 male writers and a male presidential candidate. Adjusting for gender, the essay titles would now read: “Barack’s Underpants,” “Elect Brother Frigidaire,” “Mephistopheles for President,” “The Road to Codpiece-Gate,” and so on. Inside, we would find ruminations on the male candidate’s doggy looks and flabby pectorals; musings on such “revealing” traits as the candidate’s lack of interest in backyard grilling, industrial arts and pets; and mocking remarks about his lack of popularity with the cool boys on the playground (i.e., the writers and their “friends”). We would hear a great deal of speculation about whether the candidate was really manly or just “faking it.” We would hear a great deal about how the candidate made them feel about themselves as men and whether they could see their manhood reflected in the politician’s testosterone displays. … And we would hear virtually nothing about the candidate’s stand on political issues.

Susan Morrison, the editor of Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary (who’s also the articles editor of The New Yorker, and former editor in chief of this newspaper), defends the absence of political analysis in the book thusly: “There’s plenty of Hillary Studies literature out there that parses the candidate’s stands on policy issues, her Senate votes, and her track record as first lady. This book isn’t aiming at that kind of op-ed territory. Rather, it’s an attempt to look at the ways in which women think about Hillary (and why they think so much about Hillary), how they make their judgments about her, which buttons she pushes in them and why.”

Actually, the op-ed territory is awash with exactly the same sort of trivializing dissection. Hillary Studies pundits are obsessed with the candidate’s hairdos, outfits, cookie-baking comments, supposedly “cold” personality and even, most recently, her failure to apply “The Rules” style of dating in her politics. The ratio of trenchant political commentary to personal pot-shotting on the subject of Hillary Clinton in the larger media realm is precisely echoed in the pages of this book, which seems intended to reprise the op-ed fixations, not to bury them. The result is a good deal of convenient psychologizing, self-absorbed meanderings and unearned snipes—and a handful of efforts to take a respectable step back from how-do-I-personally-feel-about-Hillary thumb-suckery.

Thanks to its more insightful contributors, Thirty Ways does provide grist for thought. Among those writers who thankfully manage not to dwell on themselves are Katha Pollitt, who considers what the torrent of sexualized epithets about Hillary Clinton suggests about male hysteria; Deborah Tannen, who draws on actual interviews she conducted with actual women to diagnose the double bind that all female professionals face; and Leslie Bennetts, who argues that Clinton’s many self-appointed psychoanalysts have woefully “missed the point” by asking all the wrong questions: “The real problem is our own schizoid relationship with female gender roles—and the fact that we don’t even recognize the true nature of what’s bothering us.”

What would you have said had you written for the book? I think I’d be disqualified for not finding her a vivid topic in my personal life. Perhaps that’s a good effect of the very strong women philosophers I know and have known.

Many thanks to Feminist Law Professors: Have a look at their discussion.

10 thoughts on “Hillary and the Feminine Gaze

  1. Good great lord, how depressing. Those of us in the States may remember, though, how absolutely bonkers pop culture also went over -Bill- Clinton in 1992, what with the articles about the Big Shoulders and the oodles of stories about women having sex-dreams about him. In short, we inhabit an intensely gendered and objectifying culture whose lightning-speed lends itself to even more genderiffic objectification.

    I think were I to contribute to such a book, I’d write that I see Hillary Clinton as a strong, proud fighter. And many men report seeing her the same way right now! I heard one interview in which a man said he voted for her because “she’s fierce, she’ll fight for me!” Heck yes.

  2. Kate, I’m wondering whether many academic/professional women are ‘made to feel something about themselves as women’ by Hillary. She just doesn’t seem that far away from being one of some very vague “us.”

    I suspect that it’s her seeming like one of us that accounts for my getting so cross as the trashing of her that is going on.

    I’d be really interested in hearing what other readers of this blog feel.

    I suspect if I were writing for the volume, I’d cheat a bit and draw on what I’ve written for this blog about the Hillary haters. Or at least more of the same, perhaps with a special emphasis for the audience of the book.

  3. I used to think that people’s reactions to Hillary were set in stone. But I’ve been fascinated to watch my Republican mother-in-laws views change. She used to be a die-hard Hillary hater, with no satisfying explanation for this hatred. Now she said she finds Hillary impressive– “she’s a worker, not a shirker” apparently. I find this both hopeful and surprising. I guess I tend to assume that a lot of the negative reactions are at such an irrational, almost unconscious level that new data might have no effect. I’m glad to see that it can. As to me– I’ve always thought she was impressive, but I’ve been very disappointed by her behaviour in this campaign. (Anti-democratic actions re Nevada and now Michigan and Florida, serious misrepresentation of Obama, and failure to condemn the race-baiting of her campaign.)

  4. Jender, I think I agree about the campaigns though, speaking entirely for myself, too much of my info is mediated by the press and I think it’s risky to put too much credence in it.

    I think I understand Hillary’s reluctance to apologize for her vote on Iraq better than I do her original vote. For a lot of people that seems to decide them against her.

    I’ve been reading Sue Miller’s The Senator’s Wife this weekend. The senator is a Gary Hart figure, and probably for the first time I find myself wondering about Hillary’s personal life for more than just a moment. The book raises questions about how much pain and public humiliation love and sexual attraction can survive. It’s a painful situation to think about, and I’m not sure I entirely agree with Miller.

  5. G’day to you! I saw the article, and then read some of the blogsphere uptake. A number of young and strong feminists said they were really hurt by it. I’m still trying to figure that out. I mean, sure she is unhappy with them if they support Obama and thinks in some way they’ve sold out. But should that view cause them pain? And if so, should they hold it against Robin Morgan?? Actually, I’m sounding, I suspect, as though I’m criticizing them, but I’m really just very puzzled by the whole thing.

    I’m wondering if my empathy level is getting low!

  6. I have a huge capacity for compassion and empathy :)..I thought what Robin Morgan wrote was incredible, it hit home to me because for the first time ever, here in Australia we got a female Deputy Prime Minister…”Julia Gillard”.

    Another amazing and inspiring woman who has waded through crap and held her head so high.

    It is none of my business who becomes your next President, I am a citizen of Australia, but Hillary going for it and working so hard toward her dream is history making for me…she’s just doing it you know?

    You want to be born female? have different colored skin? but gotta dream of what you want to do with your life, don’t let anyone tell you you can’t, your not the right sex, your not smart enough, wrong color, from too poor a socio economic class….you just grab your dream by the scruff of the neck and drag it with you to the best that you can do.

    I am ashamed to say until 5 days or so ago I hadn’t heard of Robin Morgan, so proud to be woman and so proud to say and write what she feels so strongly about.

    Goddamn I am having the most awesome week, I love my xx chromosomes so much!


  7. Pam, on thinking about what you’ve said, I realized that whatever the outcome of the election, the US stands to gain some good things from her graceful perserverance. One kind of bigotry has well and truly come out into the sunshine.

    I do worry that if Obama is the candidate we will start to see a horrifyingly virulent racism, signs of which are already present.

  8. JJ- I’m sure you’re right that I need to be sceptical about the tales I am being told by the press. Thanks for pointing that out. But as to young feminists’ reactions to Morgan, I completely understand. It hurts to be attacked by someone you admire.

  9. Jender, I was assuming you were already using a more critical filter than I am.

    Of course, being attacked by someone one admires can be painful, but I think the statements of pain still seem odd in this case. I think that perhaps it is the combination of (a) being convinced that RM is wrong, unjustified, and maybe has even lost it (as they say) with (b) feeling hurt at what she said. The first seemed to me to suggest a distance from RM herself, while the second suggests a more personal relationship. Certainly, RM’s attack isn’t directed at any one who reported herself hurt, as far as I can see.
    I don’t know. I suppose one might have the thought “O, how could she so misunderstand us! That’s so hurtful.” Still, the level of understanding of one another in this culture seems, quite frankly, pretty low, so I’m surprised that anyone would expect someone who disagrees with them to get them right.

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