Hillary Clinton and the Politics of Likability

On understanding the issue when assessing one’s likability.

Photographed by Annie Leibovitz for Vogue Magazine

It can be said that no one in public life today is more prepared for the presidency than Hillary Clinton. Yet, it can also be acknowledged that the former secretary of state has never been more than just a living Rorschach test.

During Clinton’s first presidential campaign in 2007, a study by the Project of Excellence in Journalism and the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy done that same year showed that media coverage of the former first lady and then New York senator were more negative than positive. As the front-runner during her first bid for the presidency, Clinton’s policies and background, of course, were explored by the media in their coverage, often being compared to the policies and backgrounds of her male competitors. As the only female presidential candidate then, however, Clinton not only faced criticisms for her political stances, but also faced a considerable amount of sexist coverage from the media — something her challengers had rarely experienced.

“You all saw the famous photo from the weekend of Hillary looking so haggard and looking like 92 years old,” political commentator Michelle Malkin had said on Fox news. “If that’s the face of experience, I think it’s going to scare away a lot of those Independent voters.” Meanwhile, Chris Matthews, in an episode of Hardball, also gave his much-needed analysis of Clinton’s appearance from a different event: “Her hair looked just to be cosmetic,” he said. “Her hair looked great, she looked great.” Sadly, both Malkin and Matthews are only two people in a handful of critics — women and men alike — who believe in the social policing of personal appearance, perpetuating everything unpleasant in an image-obsessed culture where women, even those in power, can’t escape.

Now, eight years later, the coverage regarding Clinton’s personal appearance has not so much subsided but, rather, turned into one of the many explanations as to why she is unlikable, as Will and Grace’s Jack McFarland character satirically captured during the show’s YouTube reunion: “I don’t like that she wears pants.” Although she has become the first woman in American history to accept a major party’s presidential nomination, Clinton is still very much a polarized figure, either admired or hated by the public, and the discussions of her personal appearance have been magnified into a diagnosis of why she is unlikable. In turn, likability has become a topic that, aside from Clinton’s daunting email scandals and the attack in Benghazi, has haunted Clinton’s second bid for the presidency and the rest of the Hillary Clinton narrative.

Writer Roxane Gay shrewdly explored the topic of likability in an essay from her book Bad Feminist. In the essay, aptly titled “Not Here to Make Friends,” Gay analyzes female literary characters deemed unlikable by readers and critics because the characters “make so-called bad choices,” consequently pondering how the idea of likability is, in and of itself, “a performance, a code of conduct dictating the proper way to be.” Gay manages to hit a nerve with her essay, as she gives readers an incisive take on how unlikable characters are inevitably more honest and fully realized human beings, and that the concept of likability is nothing more than a reflection of a culture that constantly seeks for approval and affection.

Indeed, and to add on to Gay’s ideas, when likability becomes the fundamental factor in assessing women’s strengths and flaws, the idea of likability, therefore, becomes an influential political weapon. It becomes a weapon used to subvert the anomaly, and it becomes a powerful tool in trying to reaffirm normative gender expressions on women like Clinton who exist outside the code of expectations. After all, a woman must be passive, gentle, and soft spoken. She cannot be aggressive. She cannot voice her opinions or interrupt a man when he is at his most aggressive. She must dress in a way that exudes femininity. She is not allowed to age past 30. She cannot make mistakes even if her male predecessors have made far worse mistakes before her. And if she does make mistakes, she must face a panel of angry, adulterous old men and an army of Millennials devoid of women’s history, ready to cast her out as they yell, “Lock her up.”

A sharp example of likability as a political weapon dates back in 2008 for Clinton, when the Los Angeles Times reported that Clinton’s win in the New Hampshire Primary was seen as a victory born out of women’s sympathy after Clinton, during a campaign event, teared up when she was dogged with another question about her likability. The momentary break in her often solid composure, according to the Times reporters, was what prompted women to vote for their historic candidate. For the voters, that moment certainly made Clinton likable enough in a time before EmailGate and the attack in Benghazi, the top reasons people often use today to legitimize their claim that Clinton is unlikable.

The voter reaction in the 2008 New Hampshire Primary is particularly disturbing for two reasons: First, neither Barack Obama nor John Edwards, Clinton’s top two primary opponents, defied social conventions by showing a man’s ability to produce a tear in public to woo voter perception. They simply showed up in suits and presented their points to ensure they had votes. And second, the obsession in a woman’s likability prompted a qualified, competent candidate to revert to the same gender norm of female fragility she had deviated from to prove she is as capable, if not more, as her male opponents. It isn’t enough for a woman to speak articulately or to explain and defend her positions in meticulous detail to win voters over; she must still perform the way voters expect her gender to perform.

Like the case for both Obama and Edwards, the topic of likability is not a topic at all for Clinton’s Republican presidential opponent, Donald Trump.

“I’m not sure that likability is a word that enters into Donald Trump’s assessment,” author and feminist Gloria Steinem said in an interview with Katie Couric for Yahoo News.

Despite public opinion polls that showed the negative perception towards both Clinton and Trump, with the latter being described as “arrogant” and a “blowhard” by voters, Trump’s likability, as Steinem pointed out, was never called into question. Shockingly, the real estate mogul benefited from his braggart personality as proven by his meteoric rise in poll numbers during the primaries. Trump, who openly mocked a disabled journalist at one of his rallies and who has been a topic of numerous scandals since the 1980s, including allegations of raping his ex wife, went on to beat his more polished Republican counterparts for the Republican nomination.

We do not question Trump’s likability because it is more natural to see an aggressive man attempting to grab, pun intended, a leadership position regardless of how inappropriate and unfit the behavior can get. When Trump goes on the attack, it is seen as a proper response for an alpha male commander-in-chief who genuinely wants to father America and make it great again. Sure, it makes people angry, but it is the kind of anger that only lasts for a second. When it is Clinton who goes on the attack, however, it is because she has poor judgment and, therefore, she must suffer a cultural time loop where she is forced to sit calmly with no hope of breaking out, perpetually pressed to answer questions from men who hover over her and tell her to be ashamed of herself.

Clinton, who has been criticized as a “liar” by many voters, plummeted in the polls during the primaries as media coverage of her use of a private email server and the 2012 attack on Benghazi continued. But while Clinton’s use of a private email server during her tenure as secretary of state certainly raises serious questions regarding transparency, the Benghazi incident best underscores the limits of the U.S. Government and the Obama Doctrine, and the failures of a divided congress where House Republicans voted to reduce spending by cutting federal funding on diplomatic security.

“House Republicans cut the administration’s request for embassy security funding by $128 million in fiscal 2011 and $331 million in fiscal 2012,” Dana Milbank wrote for The Washington Post.

Clinton, for her part, criticized the cuts that transpired during her time as secretary of state, calling the Republican decision “detrimental to America’s national security.” In the end, however, Clinton’s deep concerns for the cuts had been shrouded by the terrorist attack in Benghazi that took the lives of four Americans.

It is stupid to say that the events in Benghazi is not a serious lesson regarding American foreign policy and the dangerous threat of terrorism. However, when one person is blamed for the tragedy and is immediately made an enemy, it becomes a much-heated discussion that is no longer about politics and facts, but about public perception of one person and why that one person is held accountable for everything that went wrong. After all, no high ranking U.S. public official was held accountable or faced multiple investigations for the 1983 terrorist attack on the Marine barracks in Beirut, which claimed the lives of more than 200 Americans, or for the U.S. embassy terrorist bombings in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998.

People want a likable candidate or, rather, a likable female candidate. But Clinton is not a likable female candidate. Instead, she’s a woman whose decisions make people uncomfortable; whether it’s the decision to wear pantsuits, to change her position on issues as she sees fit, to assertively fulfill her profession rather than stay home to bake cookies, to use a private email server, or the decision to stand by her husband despite his own sexual misconduct and his other alleged sexual encounters. She makes these decisions, and she does so unapologetically, free from the constraints of what people deem as the proper way to be. It is a compelling trait that makes her more human but flawed and unlikable in the eyes of the voters, who would much rather have a perfect, scandal-free woman candidate like Elizabeth Warren, the Democratic senator of Massachusetts, to run for president despite the two politicians’ shared views on major issues: sanctions on Iran, support for comprehensive immigration reform, restoring the Buffett Rule on taxes, rigorous background checks on gun purchases, and an adamant support for the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).

In Ann Douglas’s profile of Clinton for the December 1998 issue of Vogue, Douglas writes:

“Power as an aphrodisiac, as sex appeal, is generally associated with men because they long monopolized it, but when a woman wears it, as increasing numbers do, it works just as effectively — on other women as well as men, perhaps more so because we’re not trained to expect it.”

Here, Douglas reaffirms what gender discussions have long suggested about women in power that everyday conversations bury: We are not trained to expect it. Rather than changing our expectations or having no expectations at all, we demand Clinton to fit or play the part of our expectations. When we do not encounter our expectations, though, our natural instinct subconsciously invites the question of whether or not the behavior we do encounter is correct or ideal for a woman. But Clinton doesn’t have the willingness to be the correct woman that people demand of her, and she shouldn’t have to pretend. She’s not the perfect, ideal candidate because there is no perfect, ideal candidate; only a candidate who hasn’t been weeded out by the public. She makes decisions only a few of us try to understand, commits rights and wrongs as equally as the men who have monopolized the same aphrodisiac she enjoys — the only difference is that she is expected to wear a skirt.