Tuesday, March 06, 2007

"Hillary" is a "woman"

In today's New York Times, page one, three columns wide, above the fold, is a profile of Hillary Rodham Clinton on the campaign trail in New Hampshire entitled "Clinton Shapes Tough and Tender Image for '08" by Mark Leibovich. It is a sneering and sexist piece of work, ridiculing Clinton without setting forth a single substantive criticism of anything she says or does, substituting snide adjectives and scare quotes for insight.
Female stereotypes, both implicit and explicit, litter the piece.
She is the diligent student who gets an A in penmanship, the woman in a hurry who still takes care to dot her i’s.
She is, in this latest unveiling, the Nurturing Warrior.
She is a tea-sipping girlfriend who vows to “deck” anyone who attacks her; a giggly mom who invokes old Girl Scout songs and refuses to apologize for voting for the Iraq War Resolution in 2002.

Over the years, Mrs. Clinton has evolved through a series of female personas. Her outspoken feminism and perceived putdown of cookie-baking mothers provoked fierce criticism. She became the classic “woman wronged” after the Monica Lewinsky scandal.

As a Senate candidate in 2000, Mrs. Clinton embraced the role of an attentive “listener” as opposed to the power-hungry climber many had suspected. In the Senate, Mrs. Clinton has applied herself to winning over colleagues and becoming one of the boys.

She is proper and polite.

Leibovich's hook in the piece, of course, is that Clinton is cycling through a series of personae to suit her needs, but that does not explain why each new facet of her personality has to be summed up in a sexist cliché.

If there is any truth to the perception that Hillary Rodham Clinton has changed her image like her wardrobe over time (though it seems to me more likely that the media have picked up and discarded different caricatures as they passed in and out of fashion) I wonder if this variability isn't an effect of gendered limits on the public imagination. Maybe we (or some of us) are unable to understand a powerful, intelligent, ambitious woman as an integrated personality, so an anomalous combination like Hillary Rodham Clinton (anomalous in the world presented by the media, not out here in real life) can only be represented piecemeal?

The sexism in the piece extends beyond the overt stereotypes. Clinton's "conversations" (the word is almost always in scare quotes) with supporters are referred to as "chit chats," although the only one quoted was a brief but particularized exchange about solar panels and the power grid. As Clinton spoke at a ceremony honoring Sojourner Truth, Leibovich feels compelled to point out that "a press aide, Philippe Reines, held her purse."

The piece recounts the many ways in which Clinton reaches out to connect with women which, of course, she does:

[S]he tries to connect with women by expressing her frustration with those men now in charge. In Berlin, she waves her hands in the air when discussing Mr. Bush’s — and Vice President Dick Cheney's — seeming infatuation with invading Iraq from early on in their administration.

“I’m not a psychiatrist,” she declared, “so I don’t know all the reasons behind their concern, some would say obsession, with Saddam Hussein."

There is a larger lesson here, girls. “You’ve got to be willing to talk to bad people,” she said. “Sometimes you just have to deal with people you don’t agree with.”

Note, please, that the reference to "girls" is Leibovich's, not Clinton's.
Apart from the irritating tone, however, Leibovich's article says nothing negative about Clinton. It appears, from what Leibovich reports, that Clinton indeed listens when she "listens," and converses when she is having a "conversation." Her only fault seems to be that she is a "woman" but, if you remove all the scare quotes, that doesn't actually seem to be much of a problem.

Addendum: I began to wonder if it was just my feminist humorlessness that made me find this article offensive, but Andrew Cline of the New Hampshire Union Leader (not, as far as I know, a feminist hotspot) says:
It’s an interesting profile in that reporter Mark Leibovich presents Hillary as cold and calculating. As he portrays her, all of her casual warmth and chumminess on the trail is deliberately plotted and inauthentic. Not that this has never been said before, but it’s important that it’s coming from a New York Times profile of a liberal politician.

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