November 14, 2016
The Trainwreck Files: Hillary Clinton
by Sady Doyle
It’s been a difficult week. In today’s installment of her ongoing series The Trainwreck Files, Sady Doyle, author of Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear… And Why, looks to none other than Hillary Clinton to ask: Trainwreck?
Boy, do I hate being right all the time.
About a month ago—a distant, near-mythical time in my life when I did not have to worry about losing my healthcare, seeing my friends and loved ones attacked in the street for their skin color, or losing Roe v. Wade—I gave a talk about Trainwreck, in which I said the following.
When I set out to write a book about female “likability,” I did not hope that the fate of nations would hang on my thesis by the time it came out. I find it terrifying: Every time I see a headline wondering about her “likability problem,” every time a new meme arises comparing Clinton to someone’s mean mommy or strict teacher, every time her husband’s infidelity is brought up as a mark against her — “If her husband doesn’t want her, why should we?” to quote one memorable t-shirt — I remember that I’ve spent years learning how these stories work. And how they work is that the woman subjected to them is destroyed: Battered and humiliated out of the public eye, turned into a monster so that we can have the pleasure of slaying the dragon and feeling like heroes.
I really can’t say it any better than by telling you: I already said it. I already knew it, on some level. The messy, public destruction of the targeted woman, the need to see her broken and shamed for violating our idea of “acceptable” femininity, is the whole point of the trainwreck industry. It is just how this story works. And—to my deep sorrow and even deeper anger—it is indeed how the story worked, eventually, for Hillary Clinton.
Damn, but she had a good run though, didn’t she? Women become trainwrecks precisely because they embody our cultural anxieties about women; they rub against the limits of what we’ll permit a woman to look like, or do, or want. For the last three decades, no woman has chafed the American patriarchy like Hillary Clinton.
She was a mother who worked; a wife who earned all the family money. She was a political spouse, a purely decorative item, who actually worked on policy. She was educated, stoic, assertive, brilliant; or, translated to the language of Patriarchy, she was, uppity, cold, bitchy, arrogant. She believed in herself, she believed in her plans and her skills—“Her ambition! Her fucking ambition!!!!” Men will moan to this day, viscerally horrified by the thought of a woman hoping to get a better job than “married to the boss”—and she thought she could lead. She was right. She led. She was a senator, a secretary of state, she ran for president. She ran twice. In one of her runs for president, she actually made her husband, one of America’s premier examples of dick-driven machismo, stand on a stage and not only say he thought his wife could do his job better than he could, but give a long, boring speech about how much he wanted to have her babies. Here was a woman who thought she could be King. And it seemed, for a very long time, as if she was right.
Of course we hated her. Of course we did. Men hated her with something approaching terror, a belief that she was not just powerful, but so omnipotent that she could mobilize grand conspiracies—murdering every co-worker who disagrees with her, arranging for her part to be played at public events by body doubles, disguising her epilepsy/brain damage/incontinence/dementia while running a grueling campaign, convincing Donald Trump to run for President—easy as flicking her wrist, and without ever being caught. Women often hated her with something more personal and intimate, an uneasy subliminal need to define ourselves against or around her: When Hillary said she wasn’t a “little woman,” that she didn’t “bake cookies,” was she calling us little and our goals pathetic? Was Hillary feminist, was she our kind of feminist, if we called ourselves feminist would people think we were like her? Wasn’t Hillary, well, [FILL IN THE BLANK: old/uncool/ugly/bitchy/selfish/greedy/radical/mainstream/submissive/domineering]? And weren’t we trying not to be that, shouldn’t we stay away from women like that, weren’t they bad at being women? If everyone hated her, if all the men we knew hated her, could they really be wrong?
In the end, she couldn’t survive it. No one could. We know that now. No one has. And it’s not their fault. This world feasts on the flesh of courageous women. Mary Wollstonecraft wrote Vindication of the Rights of Woman, and pursued the same kind of sexual liberty—unmarried serial monogamy—that twenty-first-century women take for granted; she spent a hundred years as a cultural punchline, mocked by conservative publications as a “usurping bitch” or “maniac,” and by Robert Browning as a love-starved stalker with “much amiss in the head.” Theroigne de Mericourt, one of the most visible female figures of the French Revolution, was laughed out of committees for protesting assertions like “the rights of a man over his wife, and likewise, the rights of a father over his children, are those of a protector over his proteges;” she was the only one at that meeting who heard anything wrong there. She, too, was called a whore by conservatives, but it was leftist women who dragged her aside, ripped her clothes off, and tried to beat her to death. She ended her life in a mental institution, bathing in ice-cold water and sleeping on piles of straw.
In 200 years, we have not stopped doing this: The “Ditch the Witch” campaign against Julia Gillard was so successful that she was not only forced out within three years of being named prime minister of Australia, but forced to swear she would never again work in politics. And now it comes to Hillary Clinton. Standing on stage, conceding the thing she has worked for all her life to a white supremacist demagogue with no experience or qualifications, while Wolf Blitzer spends the voice-over introduction wondering how much pain she’s in and whether she’ll cry. Blamed for her loss, sometimes by the same people who ardently worked to make her lose, with not a word to suggest sexism may have played a role. Cast as “weak,” called more names, her defeat leered and laughed at; made to give us what we all wanted, the spectacle of a woman broken before us, to prove that women like her cannot exist, and should not try.
Oh, but she did. Hillary Clinton did exist, and does exist, and she has never, ever stopped trying to exist on her own terms. Mary Wollstonecraft, Theroigne de Mericourt, Charlotte Bronte, Billie Holiday: They existed. They lived, took their chances, existed outside of their times. And though patriarchy tries its best to make us forget, all they need is for their daughters in the future to come along and brush the dust off their names. Uncover their stories. Make them sing and breathe and fight again.
Because when the daughters of that faraway future come back to the trainwrecks, what we find is that they were the best of us, all along. They were not freaks, not monsters; not weak, and not broken. They simply had more in common with the future than the past. They lived as if liberation were already present, instead of waiting for it to arrive. Hillary Clinton acted as if women could be presidents of the United States, for God’s sake. Of course we had to take her down. But one day, when some woman reads Hillary’s story—it might be one hundred years later, because it took that long for Wollstonecraft; it might be two hundred years later, because it took that long for Theroigne—she will wonder why that was ever an exceptional thing to believe.
So Hillary belongs to our granddaughters, not to us. But when they find her, I hope they hear, from at least some of us, how much fun it was to live in her time — to watch people sling arrow after arrow after arrow at her, to hate her with all of their being, and to watch her survive them every time. Popping up, somehow stronger and more powerful, every time she got knocked over. Enduring ten thousand things that would devastate a normal woman, and asking for more. God, it was wonderful to watch that. It was more than wonderful: When Hillary acted as if a woman could be President, somehow, I believed it. In spite of all I knew, I let myself believe. When Hillary survived every attack made on her, I believed survival was possible — that she might take them all on and win, that sexism had weakened to the point that we were done destroying public and visible and powerful women. I felt, for one short year, that we might live in a kinder world. That we might be kinder people. That the age of trainwrecks might be over at last.
It’s not. We’re not. But hear this: Now that I live here, in the real world of sexism and cruelty and women torn apart for wanting more, the world where the Donald Trumps of the world always win eventually, I can see more clearly than ever why we needed her. I know now that I would not give up, for anything, the years in which Hillary let me believe.
Verdict: A trainwreck, and a hero. Trainwrecks always are.
Sady Doyle founded the blog Tiger Beatdown in 2008. Her work has appeared in In These Times, The Guardian, Elle.com, The Atlantic, Slate, Buzzfeed, Rookie, and lots of other places around the Internet. Her first book, Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock, and Fear... And Why is out now from Melville House.