Five months after the US presidential election, pundits and analysts are still working to understand the factors behind Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Now a new book by American scholar Susan Bordo, The Destruction of Hillary Clinton, makes a striking argument about the cause of Clinton’s loss: She had no control of her narrative, particularly as it was shaped by the media.
In culture, controlling the narrative is key to gaining authority. That is why women have historically been denied the right to control their narratives, along with their lives and bodies. Hillary Clinton’s experience was all women’s experience, magnified on a national scale. The problem is that the people who should read Bordo’s book are the very ones who will not read it—no matter how seductive the title appears to misogynists and the Hillary-haters chanting “lock her up.”
In this regard, Bordo’s book is bound by the same sexist constraints that hemmed in Clinton: Falling back on mindless misogynist tropes and narratives is economically more efficient than actually paying attention to, and deconstructing, them. Throughout the election, people did not judge Hillary Clinton for themselves, but let the misogynist media do it for them.
Bordo’s central premise, she explains, is “that the Hillary Clinton who was ‘defeated’ in the 2016 election was, indeed, not a real person at all, but a caricature forged out of the stew of unexamined sexism, unprincipled partisanship, irresponsible politics, and a mass media too absorbed in ‘optics’ to pay enough attention to separating facts from rumors, lies, and speculation.” For her part, Hillary knew, from decades of sexist attacks on her character, that she had to stay focused on the issues, even if that meant she was criticized for not being a showman on the debate stage. As a Vox language analysis of Clinton’s speeches shows, Hillary spoke primarily about policy and abstained from personal subjects, save the few heartfelt moments in her viral “Humans of New York” post: “I know that I can be perceived as aloof or cold or unemotional. But I had to learn as a young woman to control my emotions. And that’s a hard path to walk.”
Viewed through a gender lens, the presidential election was nothing less than a manifestation of the America’s ongoing gender war, magnified to mythic proportions: the battle-worn feminist who proclaimed black lives matter faced off against, and lost to, the epitome of toxic masculinity and American exceptionalism. And, after eight years of a contemplative scholar-president—a black man who embodies the aloha spirit—America was all too keen to reclaim its virility in the image of a pompous business tycoon. The magnitude of America’s misogyny was writ large when the nation—abetted by the Electoral College, and perhaps the nefarious handiwork of a few international entities—selected a grossly inexperienced man over an experienced woman.
Bordo’s feminist analysis is concise and incisive. She moves from the double standards faced by female politicians, often in the form of the likeability penalty, through to a discussion of the ultimate red herring, “the emails”—which, she assiduously observes, were the culmination of a decades-long witch hunt against Hillary Clinton. The fact is that it was perfectly legal for Clinton to use a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state; as Bordo points out, the National Archives changed their guidelines about personal email accounts after she left her position. None of the emails Clinton sent while serving as secretary of state were classified as confidential during her tenure. A handful were given this designation years after the fact, and after she left the State Department.
Bordo is at her most powerful when she exposes how the generational gap effectively trapped Hillary in two competing narratives about Hillary’s political ideology that divided women largely by age in this election. Depending on one’s generation and knowledge of recent political history, Hillary was either the feminist firebrand or the establishment warmonger. In the 20th century, America found Hillary far too liberal—“Saint Hillary” the “aspiring philosopher queen,” the respectable mastheads like New York Times disparagingly called her. But in the 21st century, Hillary has become known as a money-hungry, power-grabbing member of the “establishment.” “[Y]oung women,” Bordo claims, ‘weren’t going to rush to order a plastic ‘woman card’ for a candidate that had been portrayed [during the primary] by their hero as a hack of the ‘establishment.’”
Older women who had lived through the struggle for women’s rights could empathize with all that Hillary has incurred. Younger women were indifferent to Hillary as much as they are to the bathwater of this struggle. For them, a female president is inevitable—someday. They aren’t, to quote the slanderous phrase, tritely “voting with their vaginas.”
The narratives about Hillary’s marriage to Bill Clinton have also changed over time, reflecting the prevailing social mores and anxieties of the period. Hillary was blamed for Bill’s gubernatorial reelection loss in 1980 because she was a “radical feminist”—the “Lady Macbeth of Little Rock”— who refused to adopt his surname. But over 30 years later, Bordo notes, she was lambasted for taking his last name and deciding to stay with him after his consensual affair with Monica Lewinsky. Because when things go well for men, it’s all their doing—but when things go poorly for men, there is always a woman to blame.
A large part of Bordo’s objective with this book is to counter the deep trove of misogynist material that has been used to discredit Hillary throughout the decades. In this regard, Bordo faces a nearly impossible task—a lone voice in the winds of misogyny. But it is admirable. Openly loving Hillary Clinton is, indeed, a radical act.
At one point in her book, Bordo outlines nearly three pages of Hillary’s accomplishments (e.g. “Helped create the Office of Violence Against Women at the Department of Justice”; “Helped create the Children’s Insurance Program”). Her goal is to disprove Bernie Sanders’s ridiculous quip that Hillary was not qualified to be president. If it weren’t the case that these bullet-points are just brief glimpses at Hillary’s long and illustrious resume, they would seem hyperbolic. But this is always the fate of women. To put it bluntly: women have to do twice as well as men in order to get half the credit. Even then, the credit may not be forthcoming if men are intimated by women’s intelligence and fortitude and strength.
Unlike Clinton, Sanders was fully in control of his narrative—evident by his ability to deceitfully label Hillary part of the “establishment,” while righteously declaring himself a revolutionary. This is how, Bordo argues convincingly, Sanders “splintered and ultimately sabotaged the Democratic party—not because he chose to run against Hillary Clinton, but because of how he ran against her.” Bordo could have pressed harder on this point. But it remains a glaring hypocrisy that liberals who complained about Clinton’s support of the notorious 1994 Crime Bill overlook the fact that the only 2016 Democratic contender who voted for that bill was Sanders.
Bordo’s argument would have proven stronger had she more explicitly threaded together how the exact language harnessed against Hillary Clinton by conservatives throughout the 1980s and 1990s was eagerly and blindly appropriated by young liberals during the 2016 presidential election. That critique would have proved devastating—indeed, perhaps far too devastating for publication.
What resonates most in Bordo’s analysis is how much Hillary has lacked the authority over her own narrative—and how much the media and the general public refused to pay attention to what she had to say. This rings especially true in recent weeks, as more is revealed about the Trump campaign’s connections to Russia. All this time, Hillary’s been telling us. She warned us, repeatedly, even during the presidential debates, that Trump was Putin’s puppet. We just haven’t been listening to her. Because we hate listening to our mothers.
No wonder she likes to be alone in the woods.