There are two pieces of art on Hillary Clinton, in time for the November election. She deserves them and we need them. One is seemingly true, the other just feels true; or, rather, I want it to be.
The first is Sky’s four-part documentary, Hillary, on her life and 2016 run for the presidency. It is a sad affair, with villainous Hillary sitting in a chair, a victim of everyone, especially herself. She is over-dyed and over-tidied, like a woman trying not to make Donald Trump throw up, though she doesn’t know why. She has been shouted at so long she is shriven.
Like what you’re reading? Get the free UnHerd daily email
Already registered? Sign in
Does camera-ready mean sex-ready? The way American women dress for television cameras is heavy with self-disgust and shame. Why isn’t she wild-haired and in rags, like the brittle intellectual she is? Here I impose my own narrative on how Hillary should look but this story is full of women who internalise their own misogyny and talk about not trusting Hillary Clinton because they don’t trust themselves.
“I’ll try not to move so much,” is her first apologetic line to camera. She is angry too – that an imbecile beat her in a competitive exam without answering any of the questions; without actually entering the examination hall. She is shouting at the interviewer, but I doubt she is aware of it: “People feel, ‘that you are not authentic’. What is this about? When people say I’m not authentic. I’m sorry if I’m not brilliantly charismatic on TV,” – she isn’t sorry, and why should she be? — “But I’m the same person I’ve always been.” She isn’t. How could she be? What woman is the same at 72 as at 22? Why must a woman apologise for seeking power?
She knows the answer. The young Hillary is doughty; and needs must. Girls, she says, “didn’t want to get better grades than their boyfriends”. She ran for the presidency of the student council, lost to a man, and did all the work anyway, because he asked her, and “because I was interested”. I wondered if her marriage was no different.
She describes the entrance exam for Yale law school. She sat down and, “These guys started harassing us. ‘What are you doing here? You don’t belong here. You can’t go to law school’. Or my favourite: ‘If you get into law school and take my place and I get sent to Vietnam and die it’s your fault’.” He thinks she is a witch: a witch with a pen. If she succeeds, he will die.
“In those days,” she says, “you got no points for being emotional. You get no points for trying to fight back or defend yourself. When you train yourself like that and then you fast forward into an age where everybody wants to see what your emotions are and how you respond….” She trails off into — “it’s really a different environment”.
She was the first female lawyer at her firm: “When I was going to court as a young lawyer it was a spectacle. These good old boys would say, ‘oh gosh’. It was like the talking dog. ‘She can not only stand on her hind legs she can clap her front paws’.”
A judge said to her: “Miss Rodham you just look so pretty, stand up there and show us how pretty you look today, just turn around.” The judge sounds like Donald Trump; quite a lot of people in this story sound like Donald Trump, because he is on television, which seems to be the American dictionary. But the child who had screamed at her Republican father, “When I grow up, I’m going to marry a Democrat!” had already gone.
Someone shouted, “Hillary, iron my shirt!” to her at a rally; did he speak for All Men? “If there is anyone left in the auditorium who wants to learn how to iron his own shirt, I’ll talk about that,” she said. He did know how to iron his own shirt. He just didn’t want to and, as a man, he felt a future Secretary of State should do it for him, if she is female. Men are allowed this kind of entitlement is the moral of the story: women are not. We must be likeable, like kittens. We must save men by ruining ourselves.
She is still intensely female: she blames herself. “I was too quick to be defensive,” she says, “I didn’t play the game well enough”. I would say the game was unplayable; and that she cannot bear that she lost makes me love her.
The second piece of art is a long dream sequence, or a novel: The West Wing with less shouting, and fewer men. It is Rodham: What if Hillary Hadn’t Married Bill? by Curtis Sittenfeld. It is Hillary’s imagined memoir and the reading of it is an urge for possession. Pageant queens are divided into constituent body parts. Female politicians are divided into constituent character defects and foul passions.
Here, without flourish, in the clear, unworldly style of a second-wave feminist don — the archetype Hillary most resembles, a woman whose dark secret is a passion for paperwork — Sittenfeld imagines a Hillary Rodham who never became Hillary Clinton.
“I was,” her Hillary writes, “a hardworking and not beautiful middle-class Midwestern girl with a mean father. I had never believed the world existed for my enjoyment”. This Hillary is endearing: an innocent. Her idea of flirting is to give a man a Reinhold Niebuhr biography.
Bill Clinton, a charismatic with a Don Juan complex, is vain enough to seek a clever mate; he courts her. But in fiction, he is self-aware. He knows he will ruin any woman: the Don Juan is not a lover but a thief. He tells Hillary, “the thing that’s wrong with me is incurable”. I have never heard selfishness framed this like before: as a disability. Is that how he won two elections?
Fictional Hillary leaves Fictional Bill, who is corrupted by the absence of her love. They become political rivals, and Hillary’s only moral error, quickly learned from, is a failure to embrace intersectionality as quickly as she should.
Rodham is amazingly plausible until the end. It is a novel about a woman who assumes a mask because she knows she will not survive without it; and then she is hated for the mask she is forced to wear. This dynamic is familiar to anyone with a passing knowledge of the witch trials: if you drown, you are innocent. If you do not drown, you are guilty and can, for variety, be burnt. She knows it is a lie for they will hate her anyway. It is also a novel about media stupidity – I cringe at the journalists seeking drama before truth – and the electorate’s decadent confusion: does it seek a competent administrator or a narrative to appal them?
Fictional Hillary is not saddled with Bill’s legacy, and she does not benefit from it: “I was not responsible for his behaviour, not even by extension. This absolution was my reward for losing him.” So, the essential conundrum of the real Hillary Rodham Clinton — did she betray feminism with her marriage to become Trump’s “crooked” witch? — is removed. I am glad, because when you bluntly ask the question, you realise how silly it is. This is a better question: Is Hillary qualified to be president, no matter who she is married to? A better question still is: can you define someone by their marriage and call yourself a feminist?
Hillary Rodham Clinton — the synthesis, both married and talented — is a paradigm, which is why it is essential to look beyond her to all women, which is, you will realise if you read about her work, all she ever wanted. What a shame it is that it couldn’t be done; but no surprise.
Join the discussion
To join the discussion in the comments, become a paid subscriber.
Join like minded readers that support our journalism, read unlimited articles and enjoy other subscriber-only benefits.Subscribe