The Year of the Power Suit: Hillary Clinton and the American Cultural Imaginary
Sleek blonde hair styled somewhere between a bob and a pixie cut, suits in varying degrees of royal blue, donning practical black heels, Democratic presidential candidate Hillary Clinton is not simply another presidential hopeful with a fiery political agenda. Instead, Clinton has been cast as the sole embodiment of female presidential material in the United States. Rife with equal parts praise and vitriol, popular representations of Clinton’s candidacy express latent societal anxieties about gender and sexuality in the context of power and leadership. Portrayed as both a panacea for a society obsessed with power, gender, and sexual taboo, as well as a regression for the Democratic Party, Hillary Clinton’s candidacy does not exist as a mere repackaging of countless Democratic presidential nominees, but rather functions as a rhetorical and semiotic device for the atmosphere of 21st century United States politics.
Hillary Clinton’s viability as the potential presidential nominee of the Democratic Party positions the body of a female presidential candidate front and center, prompting interrogation of her hair, clothes, and disposition. In her particular spatial and temporal location, Hillary Clinton is not simply another candidate running for president of the United States. She functions as the site of convergence for disparate political and social ideologies; a suit for Donald Trump has become a “power” suit for Hillary Clinton.
In their endorsement of Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination, The New York Times editorial board lauds her as one of the most “broadly and deeply qualified presidential candidates in modern history.” By beginning their endorsement with an overtly anti-Republican sentiment, the endorsement frames Clinton as the best presidential choice in light of the GOP candidates. In contrast to the chaos of the Republican bid for presidency, the article presents Democrats as logical and issue-conscious, rather than power hungry mudslingers. Through a very particular portrayal of Republicans as childish and unorganized, the article points to Hillary Clinton’s potential nomination as the “first woman nominated by a major party,” backed by her experience as a New York senator and Secretary of State under the Obama administration. In a nod to her husband, former President Bill Clinton, the article also frames Hillary Clinton as a wife and mother.
The editorial board commends Clinton for her complementary relationship with her husband, and for her loyalty during his infamous marital infidelity. Framed in relation to her most threatening opponent, Senator Bernie Sanders, the article acknowledges his political mobility of young revolutionaries with a penchant for change, but ultimately favors Clinton’s expertise as grounded and reasonable. Sanders’s policies are portrayed as unrealistic compared to Clinton’s achievable agenda. In a brief acknowledgement of the third Democratic presidential candidate, Martin O’Malley, the article presents him as non-threatening in relation to the formidability of Hillary Clinton’s political experience and presidential vision.
As do many meditations on the candidacy of Hillary Clinton, The New York Times explicitly positions Clinton in relation to her commitment to women’s issues. In a move to visibly place Clinton’s female body as central to the debate, the editorial board points to her dedication to reducing gender wage disparity, overall income inequality, and loyalty as a “friend” to working-class Americans and minority communities. In contrast to the article’s vague gestures to Republican policies, Hillary Clinton’s position on actual policies frames her as informed and capable of effecting change. Repeated mention of the Hyde Amendment, which limits federal funding for abortions, aligns Clinton as an everyday woman empathetic to the plights of her sex.
Her “star power and expertise” position her as a champion of global women’s rights, contrasted with the assumed ineptitude of the Republican candidates. In its most rhetorically poignant move, The New York Times article reframes the critique of Clinton as stoic and unapproachable as “steeliness,” rather than heartlessness, arguing that her demeanor would prove advantageous in negotiating with a staunchly conservative Congress. By presenting Hillary Clinton as the right choice for oppressed minority groups and struggling middle-class Americans, the editorial board frames Clinton as a panacea with her possible flaws being accredited to her ordinary humanness.
In direct contrast to The New York Times’ presentation of Hillary Clinton as America’s cure-all, Ryan Cooper of The Week manipulates common narrative themes associated with Clinton’s candidacy in “The Case Against Hillary Clinton.” Clearly a fighting title, the header photo portrays Clinton in a close up, elevated frame that depicts her as smug and proud. The particular photo chosen to stage the article frames Clinton as pompous and ill equipped to fill the “humbling” role of President of the United States. The article begins with the issue of Clinton’s electability in relation to her opponent, Bernie Sanders. As the more moderate Democratic candidate, Cooper frames Clinton as the more electable candidate. In raising the question of electability, however, the article is primed to directly oppose the apparent concession.
Complicating notions of electability, Cooper then questions whether or not Clinton would make a good president. Answering the rhetorical question with a simple “no,” Cooper continues his analysis of Clinton by framing her as a weak candidate in line with Doug Henwood’s My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency. Relying on a concrete example of an informed author who shares a similar opinion of Clinton, Cooper stages the book as validation for his own claims of Clinton’s ineptitude as commander-in-chief. Offering three succinct reasons why Hillary Clinton should not be president (her aggressive use of military force, the overall shadiness of the Clintons, and the general Clinton ideology), Cooper clearly presents Clinton’s weakness as a presidential candidate in terms of her husband’s presidency, constantly implicating Bill in Hillary’s bid for presidency. In a somewhat unexpected turn, however, Cooper concludes that while she may not be the best candidate for president, Clinton is miles better than anything the GOP offers. Cooper thus frames Hillary not as the best choice, but as the better choice.
While either implied or overtly addressed in most media representations of Hillary Clinton, her biological presence as a female affects the rhetorical construction of her candidacy. Not only does it impact public perception, but also her role as a candidate in relation to her constituency. In Marcie Bianco’s “Hillary Clinton’s All-American Scarlet Letter,” Clinton’s position as a female leader frames the very particular narrative of her candidacy. Bianco makes the case for why a “female president” is generally considered a contradictory term in the American imaginary, citing the United States’ overall lack of support and representation of females in positions of political power.
In a comparative context, Bianco examines the United States’ underwhelming representation of women in politics to other (supposedly “less progressive”) countries where gender representation in politics is far more equal. Thus, counter to similar narratives of Hillary Clinton in the context of gender, Bianco relates the inability of many Americans to imagine Hillary as president to the lack of prominent female figures in cultural myths and stories. Bianco thus frames the perception of Clinton’s candidacy as a patriarchal problem, symptomatic of a strong masculinist society.
Bianco’s general treatment of Hillary Clinton as a presidential candidate addresses the imaginative framing of gender as it relates to political power. Hearkening back to early rhetorical constructions of American politics as part of the masculine public sphere, Bianco argues that the separation of women from discourses of power, or assumed moral “dirtiness,” maintains a division between the sexes with women as keepers of the pure, private sphere. Through a chronicling of events in American history that vilified assumedly powerful women, Bianco frames Hillary’s particular location in the social imaginary in light of the Salem Witch Trials and the women’s suffrage movement.
Bianco further addresses the framing of Hillary Clinton as a preserver of femininity through listing a litany of verbal insults leveraged at her. From “dirty” and “evil,” to “lesbian” and “masculine woman,” Bianco illustrates how Clinton’s candidacy is complex and sensational merely due to her being a female. By presenting her as implicated in Bill’s sexual indiscretions, Bianco posits that portrayals of Hillary Clinton expect her to fulfill both the role of politician and woman as mutually irreconcilable identities. In framing Hillary Clinton as woman and politician, Bianco challenges the popular portrayal of Hillary as capable of neither, or rejecting her duties as woman in her pursuit of politics.
In a move similar to most current media representations of Hillary Clinton, Bianco analyzes the rhetoric of her candidacy in relation to Bernie Sanders. Arguing that the two candidates are presented within a binary of soiled versus untainted, Sanders’s presentation as “untainted” and a “political outsider” depends upon a pure/impure dyad. By virtue of the binary structure, Hillary therefore fulfills the role of “impure,” or one corrupted by politics. In Sanders’s link of ambition to a desire for political power, Bianco claims that he aligns Hillary with a climate of political dirtiness doubly implicated in her existence as a woman.
Sanders’s male privilege allows him to resist institutions and be anti-establishment without consequence, Bianco posits, a position that would be altogether prohibited were he a woman. In her framing of Hillary Clinton as both woman and presidential candidate, Bianco centralizes Hillary’s female body as influentially implicated in her bid for president. According to Bianco’s representation of Hillary, political affiliation aside, the election becomes a question of whether or not Americans can first imagine, and then support, the reality of a female president.
While Bianco’s article examines Hillary’s candidacy in light of the American perception of gender and power, Liz Kreutz addresses the rhetoric of feminism in Hillary’s campaign, arguing that her reliance on feminist discourse is Clinton’s main ploy against Bernie Sanders. Kreutz structures her article in light of Bill Clinton’s recent critique of some of Sanders’s supporters as blatantly sexist and offensive. The article discusses the “Bernie Bro:” young, white Bernie Sanders supporters with an active social media presence. Bill argued that salacious and derogatory gendered remarks about Hillary have been linked to Sanders supporters’ online commentary. Directly in opposition to the “Bernie Bro,” Kreutz examines the construction of “Hillary’s Sisters,” a constituency reliant upon the discourse of solidarity and rhetoric of feminism. Kreutz thus frames Hillary Clinton in terms of both her and Sanders’s supporters insofar as the supporters are thought to be representative of the candidate’s politics.
Hillary Clinton has addressed the gendered double standard as a female presidential candidate, with Kreutz noting the excruciatingly precise attention given to Hillary’s appearance in comparison with Bernie. While Hillary’s aesthetic presentation becomes intrinsically bound to her potential as an effective leader, Bernie’s disheveled, often messy look is seen as endearing and supportive of his anti-establishment political principles. For Hillary, however, a disheveled appearance would suggest that if she cannot effectively present herself, how could she ever effectively represent an entire country? Kreutz points to the discrepancy in expectation between Hillary and Bernie as a meditation on conceptions of gender and power in the United States. By framing her article in relation to Bill’s commentary, and Hillary’s acknowledgement of a clearly gendered double standard, Kreutz frames Hillary in relation to the popular perception of her gender presentation.
In a final address of Hillary’s perception among female voters, Lauren Gambino reports that female voters seem to be divided in their support of Hillary Clinton. Bernie Sanders’s appeal to young voters seems to overshadow the gendered aspects of Hillary’s campaign, Gambino notes, drawing attention to Hillary’s failure to elicit support from young female voters. One interviewee is quoted as saying she will not choose a candidate just because she is the same sex, and voiced frustration over the idea that she is expected to vote for Hillary by virtue of being a woman. Notably, Clinton has reconfigured her campaign to appeal to proponents of women’s rights, aligning herself as a strong supporter of reproductive justice, equal pay, and antidiscrimination measures. Gambino reports that this tactic is being deployed with the hopes of drawing more young voters to her campaign, particularly along the lines of sex and gender.
While Gambino focuses on the structure of Hillary’s campaign, the core of her article addresses Clinton in relation to what voters term “passion.” Bernie Sanders has been lauded as extraordinarily passionate in stark contrast to Clinton’s perceived passivity. Gambino notes that female interviewees of all ages address the issue of passion, either in support, or as a critique of, Hillary Clinton. Even though many of the constituents claim that the United States is not a postgender society, many claim that they will vote for the strongest leader regardless of gender. Hillary’s likability, rather than her electability, will ultimately determine the success or failure of her campaign, Gambino records, as many voters are concerned with her apparent lack of passion. In framing Hillary Clinton within the context of passion, or lack thereof, Gambino implicitly examines the relation between political power and gender countless media representations are concerned with. Ultimately, can Clinton be a fearless campaigner, strong leader, and a proper woman?
No matter the news source, varying political ideologies, or assumed analyses of political prowess, the framing of Hillary Clinton in the American popular imaginary is intrinsically bound to issues of gender, sex, and sexuality. The particularly vitriolic Bernie Sanders supporters tend to attack Clinton on the grounds of gender, rather than policy, on her perceived frigid sexuality, rather than her position on foreign policy. Being married to a polarizing former president with his own set of scandals and affairs, Hillary’s interconnectedness to Bill places her in a particularly vulnerable position unlike any other presidential candidate.
For hundreds of years, the spouse of the presidential candidate has been just that: a spouse. Attending upscale political events, smiling and waving, maintaining a strong relationship to blonde hair dye and red lipstick, the women behind the male presidential candidates have often been framed as necessary accessories for a successful political career. What, then, does it mean for a former first lady to challenge the script and launch her own bid for presidency? Similarly, what does it mean for Bill to be the passive bystander, albeit with an already highly accomplished repertoire to boot? Bill has nothing to lose and everything to gain by supporting Hillary’s presidential candidacy.
Regardless of how she is framed in the media, Hillary’s female body is central to her campaign. The rhetorical construction of Hillary does not simply rely on gendered propaganda or sensationalist political policy, but rather complicates the two in a combination of political policy imbued with gender politics. In order for Hillary to enter the American social imaginary as a viable candidate for presidency, she must be complexly understood as a gendered body engaged in discourses of power and masculinist ideology.
Hillary must be reframed not as a feminist panacea, but rather as a presidential candidate examined in relation to intersecting tenets of political science, gender, and rhetoric of power. Only then will Hillary’s “power suit” have the potential of being reframed as simply a “suit,” like every other presidential hopeful with his eyes set on the White House.