Thursday, September 15, 2016

To Find Hillary Clinton Likable, We Must Learn to View Women as Complex Beings

Whether you realize it or not, you’ve spent your entire life being trained to empathize with white men. From Odysseus to Walter White, Hamlet to Bruce Wayne, James Bond to the vast majority of biopic protagonists, our art consistently makes the argument that imperfect, even outright villainous, men have an innate core of humanity. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Good art should teach us to empathize with complex people. The problem comes not from the existence of these stories about white men, but from the lack of stories about everyone else.

That’s something I’ve been thinking about a lot during this increasingly insane presidential election season. Particularly as I try to wrap my head around the fact that Hillary Clinton is on one hand the most qualified human being to ever run for president of the United States, and, on the other, one of the most disliked presidential candidates of all time. In fact, Donald Trump is the only candidate who is more disliked than Clinton. And he’s not only overtly racist, sexist, and Islamophobic, but also unfit and unprepared for office. How can these two fundamentally dissimilar politicians possibly be considered bedfellows when it comes to popular opinion?

Gallons of digital ink have been spilled trying to figure out why Clinton struggles so much with likability. But perhaps the problem isn’t with her at all. Maybe it’s with us.

We tend to talk about likability as a black or white issue. But like the old adage, “I don’t know much about art, but I know what I like,” there’s no universal component of likability. After all, erudite Barack Obama, folksy Joe Biden, and angry Bernie Sanders couldn’t be more different, yet all three are beloved by their bases. Even Donald Trump—as divisive as he is—clearly has a magnetic pull among his loyal supporters.

But Clinton is different. Even many of those who plan to vote for her admit they don’t find her particularly likable. According to The Washington Post, just 33 percent of Clinton supporters are “very enthusiastic” about supporting her while 46 percent of Trump supporters say the same about their candidate. (For the record, Clinton—like most women—tends to be far more popular when she’s in office than when she’s running for one.) Pundits usually blame Clinton’s favorability issues on her perceived caginess, her tone, and her general awkwardness when it comes to public speaking. Essentially: Clinton’s flaws make her unlikable.

But that’s not the case for male politicians. In fact, it’s often their flaws that makethem likable. After all, on paper the idea of an old disheveled man yelling sounds downright unpleasant. But in practice Bernie Sanders is an utterly charming and refreshing political figure. And while one might assume Joe Biden’s frequent gaffes and penchant for using words like “malarkey” would make him seem hopelessly old-fashioned, those are precisely the qualities that have transformed him into a beloved darling of the social media age. And Clinton’s own running mate, Tim Kaine, provides a particularly interesting contrast because he shares so much of her awkwardness. Yet far from being condemned for it, he was lovingly hailed as “America’s nerdy stepdad” after his speech at this year’s Democratic National Convention.

So why is Clinton critiqued for raising her voice like Sanders, speaking hard truths like Biden, and making an awkward Pok√©mon Go reference we almost certainly would have dubbed a “dad joke” had Kaine said it? Why do we find their flaws likable and Clinton’s flaws off-putting? Why isn't she seen as America's awkward aunt or nerdy stepmom?

I would argue it’s because we don’t yet have cultural touchstones for flawed but sympathetic women. We can recognize Sanders as a fiery activist, Biden as a truth teller, and Kaine as an earnest goof, but we just don’t have an archetype—fictional or otherwise—through which to understand Clinton.

by Caroline Siede, Boing Boing |  Read more:
Image: YouTube and uncredited.