THIRTY WAYS OF LOOKING AT HILLARY: REFLECTIONS BY WOMEN WRITERS
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.
MANY OF THE writers in Thirty Ways are busy reviewing their own lives and taking their own temperatures, some with notable self-regard. Others are preoccupied with such pressing questions as, is Hillary a dog or cat person? Does she like olive burgers or Boca burgers? If she did have a hobby, what would it be?
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.”
Nor does the first-person perspective that prevails in this book always dead-end in easy self-congratulation. Jane Kramer turns her fixation on Hillary back on herself for a moment of self-examination. (“None of this answers the question of why I continue to subject Hillary Rodham Clinton to the kind of scrutiny I would never think to apply to men,” she writes. “In matters of sweet and steely, I also disappoint myself. Maybe I have not evolved.”) Amy Wilentz uses her own experience as a springboard to empathy. (“What if you had to operate in a universe where you were never allowed to say what you really felt?… Could you, as I often do, miss three consecutive appointments to get your hair cut? And really: what if you had to wear pantsuits or a turquoise jacket with a turquoise necklace and turquoise earrings?”)
THE VERY PREMISE of Thirty Ways invites us to disparage Hillary Clinton as a political candidate and induct her instead into a reality show pageant. More often than not, the contributors take the bait, passing judgment on Clinton’s femininity (“unnatural” and “contrived”), looks (“passably attractive”) and sensuality (“it is difficult for me to imagine her in an embrace, motherly or otherwise,” Susanna Moore writes). Reading through these pages, I wished for a companion volume, Thirty Ways of Looking at Women Looking at Hillary, which answered this question: Why do so many of these women writers—who have shown themselves to be graceful essayists and well-reasoned analysts in other contexts—resort to unfactual and illogical thinking and, in many cases, downright 13-year-old cattiness when the topic is Hillary?
After I’d finished Thirty Ways, I picked up a New Yorker article by one of the contributors, Lauren Collins, about a Missouri teenager driven to suicide by the taunts of mean girls on MySpace. I felt as though I were still reading Thirty Ways: The essayists’ reasons for their rancor at Hillary are as immaturely nonspecific as those of that poor girl’s adolescent tormentors. “I have yet to meet a woman who likes Hillary Clinton,” Ms. Roiphe sniffs. “We just don’t like her,” she says, channeling the women she has met. “We like her husband, but we don’t like her.”
It’s been noted that many men seem to have a problem with Hillary Clinton that revolves around their perception of her being “mom”—the smothering, devouring American Mom whose power male writers have been shuddering under since at least the 1950’s. But reading this book, I began to wonder if these women’s problem with Clinton also has to do with mom—and a mom’s lack of power.
For all the hosannas over young women advancing in competitive sports or Katie Couric snagging the CBS News anchor slot, we continue to have no tradition and no real image of public female authority. As Ms. Bennetts observes in her essay, “A woman can become Speaker of the House, but Nancy Pelosi has to cloak her authority in gender mufti by describing her ability to order congressmen around as using her ‘mother-of-five voice.’ A female can’t just be strong and forceful and direct in her decision making; she has to revert to being a mom, which we all know is her primary role anyway.”
This masquerade induces suspicion and mistrust, particularly in female observers. Does Hillary really just want power and is only pretend
ing to be driven by maternal instinct? If she really is “just a mom,” why would she be chasing the presidency? For all the tributes, mothers are just not powerful in this country, and women know it. Ms. Kramer notes in Thirty Ways: “It has been said ad nauseam that motherhood could be considered the most demanding form of leadership, calling for skills in salesmanship and negotiation and persuasion that are arguably beyond most of the backroom boys in Washington. The problem is that this is invariably said with condescension.” And said, by the daughters, with eye-rolling contempt. Recalling Hillary’s speech about protecting citizen privacy, in which the candidate jokingly referred to the lack of her own, Dahlia Lithwick concludes: “I have had no privacy but I will fight to protect yours. Oy. Who else but a mother could say such a thing?”
If any female demographic exerts force in American culture, it’s not moms, it’s girls—and it’s been that way since the possessed teens and ’tweens of the Salem witch trials were trotted out to attack the society’s independent matrons. The American girl’s power, of course, is limited, derived from powerful daddy sponsors, aimed typically at other women, especially those whose 30-years-old freshness date has expired. Grown women, so often without patriarchal backing, are out of luck—there’s no matriarchy to step in to offer wisdom and hand over the reins. We have no female establishment invested with the power to bestow authority, to pass clout from “mothers” to “daughters.” The only clout comes from attacking mothers to establishment applause in the public square.
Reading this book, I’m reminded that we’re essentially a distaff nation of motherless daughters, who operate on a marriage metaphor of power. Only one woman gets the prize, and the others must be knocked out of the ring so that she alone can grab the ring. With no real foundation for female strength, the much-vaunted “sisterhood” is destined to degenerate into a Lady of the Flies scrum—with, in this case, Hillary as Piggy.
In that regard, what’s objectionable about Thirty Ways is not what’s contained between its covers, which is at times canny and thoughtful, even if at other times it’s juvenile and mean. The very nature of the project is prejudicial. Underlying the summons to female writers to share their “feelings” about Hillary is a sly invitation—to demonstrate that when it comes to America’s consideration of a female candidate, the political is only personal.
Susan Faludi most recent book is The Terror Dream: Fear and Fantasy in Post-9/11 America (Metropolitan Books). She can be reached at email@example.com.