A women’s magazine I used to write for kept a large three-ring binder filled with story ideas. One section was called “Emo,” though, this being a women’s magazine, all the features were about emotions. Most of them were negative ones, which, presumably, the right shoes or handbag would clear right up (See: Accessories, page 116).
The problem was, the ideas rarely reflected anything like real life. At one point, the binder was stuffed with crying: “Have a good cry!” “There, there, don’t cry! “What if he cries?” And this one: “Women who cry at work.”
My editor was keen on the last one. “You know,” she said, “those girls who are constantly bursting into tears at the office.” I said I didn’t. After all, wasn’t holding it together for eight hours Job 1 for any employee? And if women were bursting into tears, might it be counterproductive to publicize that fact, given the still-fragile cause of workplace equality?
I didn’t do the piece. But I suspected then what I know now: that the media could generate endless copy (and ad revenue) keeping their sights on women on the edge, the edge between crying at work and rejecting the very idea of crying at work; between vulnerable, incompetent, manipulative or otherwise old-fashioned femininity and the sort of sexual equality that expects women to dish it out and take it, just like men.
I thought about those weeping workers when an exhausted Hillary Rodham Clinton teared up and — the pundits surmise — won the hearts of enough New Hampshire women to take the state’s Democratic primary. My first reaction was, What? Women voted for her because she cried? Had we gotten nowhere since the crying-at-work story? Maybe the anti-suffragists were right. Women are too sentimental to vote rationally.
Then I remembered that nobody votes rationally. In this most apolitical of nations, folks choose the person they’d relish having dinner with. It’s called “likeability,” and it’s apparently what won George W. Bush the White House in 2004. Even after Abu Ghraib, more than half the voters still wanted to eat a burger with the guy.
Gallup gauges our dinner-companion preferences with a “feeling thermometer,” whose scale of warmth and coolness ranges from zero to 100 degrees. In September 2007, Barack Obama was the only candidate whose readings averaged over 50 — 53, to be exact — among both Democrats and Republicans. But go figure: The vicious, petty and none-too-bright Rudy Giuliani was right behind him at 50, with Hillary trailing Rudy by a point.
Hillary’s scorching 82 degrees among Democrats was balanced by the coldest of cold shoulders nationally. The latter was surely an expression of sexism, nauseatingly evident on the Internet: “Stupid bitch,” her detractors call her. “Cunt,” “slut,” “lesbian,” “feminazi,” “Satan.” But even that 82-degree warmth wasn’t translating into the desire to vote for her. At least it hadn’t in Iowa.
The conventional wisdom about Hillary’s tears was that they “humanized” her. I don’t think so. I think they feminized her. Columnist and leading Hillary-basher Bill Kristol called the show of emotion stagecraft. But Clinton has been assiduously self-feminizing since Cookiegate, and anyone who’s paid attention can tell the real from the crocodile tears; these were authentic. Why, then, did she move so many women this time? My guess is they, too, were tired; and they saw in Hillary their own frustrations in the relentless, maybe futile, effort of balancing femininity and humanity. Let’s just say, feminism’s work is never done.
Still, feminism has knocked down some of the most rigid of gender’s strictures. For proof, look not at Hillary Clinton but at her Democratic opponent Barack Obama.
So far, Barack has suffered none of the personal scrutiny Hillary has. He is, as she admits, one likeable guy. But is he presidential? If he is, it’s not in the mold of any of his rivals. Obama is not a war hero like John McCain. He is not a Christian patriarch like Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. He’s not even a wise and world-weary father figure like Bill Richardson. He is not, in short, conventionally, presidentially masculine.
Indeed, I’d argue the quality that makes Barack Obama likeable — and potentially electable — is that he is not a particularly manly man. His youth makes him charismatic, but his is the youthful charisma of a generation that embraces metrosexuals and daddies with Snugglis. He is sexy, but he doesn’t swing his dick to prove it, like the strutting Dubya or the molasses-mouthed Bill Clinton or even like Obama’s hero, that other philanderer, Jack Kennedy. (The effect of this laid-back sexiness isn’t all pretty. It may also mitigate racist terrors among white men of the mythic hypersexual African.)
Hillary still must walk a skinny path between being a woman and looking like a (read: male) president. We’ve come a long way — she’s on the stump — but the story of her campaign would not be out of place in that Emo binder.
Meanwhile, the decades since the second wave of feminism have only broadened the emotional field for male politicians. One indicator: Since 1972, when an errant tear sank Edmund Muskie’s boat, the roster of presidents and presidential hopefuls who have wept includes Bob Dole, Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Mitt Romney.
On this field, Obama is free to be both sweet and steely, diplomatic and belligerent. And if he wins the White House, his wife won’t have to squeeze her tall frame into the space left by the cuddly Laura Bush. Rather, Michelle Obama will assume the mantle of a professional, egalitarian First Lady, secured at considerable personal cost by her husband’s rival.
In the fickle calculus of American sexual politics, a female candidate may never hit the perfect balance between femininity and humanity. No wonder it moves so many of us to watch Hillary try, even when she looks clumsy doing so.
But I like her best when she stops trying. When she tells the world she’s just going to be herself: a woman, like most women and men of the 21st century, who lives somewhere between the genders. One of those moments came five days before the famous tears. It was during the last New Hampshire debate, when the moderator asked her to respond to critics who say she isn’t likeable enough to win.
“That hurts my feelings,” Clinton said, her mouth assuming a moue that both transmitted her vulnerability and parodied the very softness she was being condemned for lacking. Then she laughed and added, “But I’ll try to go on.” Not going on — that is, pausing to be wounded — may be tough for Hillary. But no one in that audience doubted she’d have to try very hard to go on. They laughed with her, the girl who refuses to burst into tears at the office.
Neither Clinton nor Obama is my ideal candidate (mine would never win in America), but I’ll be thrilled to vote for either of them. At this point, I’m leaning toward Obama because I believe he is marginally better on the war. But I’m trying to calculate how gender will factor in the final contest. Obama may be different enough from McCain to beat him, if McCain wins the Republican nomination. On the other hand, that Gen-X masculinity could be crushed by the machismo of the grizzled prisoner of war. Whereas Hillary may be man enough to beat McCain.
Early in the women’s movement, some wondered whether feminism would free men first. In this election we’re witnessing one way in which it has. I don’t begrudge Obama the advantage; I much prefer his brand of masculinity to the older kinds. But let it be acknowledged: The feminism that is an albatross around Hillary Rodham Clinton’s neck is giving Barack Obama wings.