Clinton's damned if she does and damned if she doesn't

For the first potential female president, fighting stereotypes is a convoluted obstacle course.

Published January 11, 2008 11:00PM (EST)

With the press corps continuing to probe the "tears," the voter insurrection, the potentially positive power of Hillary-bashing, I've been thinking about the candidate who seems damned if she does and damned if she doesn't, yet survives nonetheless. If Gloria Steinem's assessment that Barack Obama could never make it as a woman is true, sometimes I wonder if Hillary Clinton could have gotten as far as she has without embodying exactly that recipe of characteristics that people (from the left and from the right) dislike so intensely.

Could the first potential female president have gotten so far without her extreme connections (being married to one of the most popular two-term presidents, making her a nepotistic freeloader), her decades of experience (making her horror of horrors a middle-aged woman), her history of hawk talk (which makes her scary and pugilistic), her wonkiness (which makes her tedious), her instincts as a political animal (which makes her inhuman)? From seeing the brouhaha over a slight dilation of the tear ducts, one can only imagine what might happen to female candidates who vented like John McCain or promulgated the power of positive thinking like Obama.

The same, of course, goes for Obama, though -- could we have a viable black candidate who was as angry as McCain, as aloof as John Kerry, as tardy as John Edwards, as wandering as Bill Clinton? Probably not. For "the firsts," be they black or female or any other identity aside from our standard straight white man, the bar isn't so much high as a convoluted obstacle course. They must prove that they aren't some noxious stereotype of angry blacks or weak women et cetera, et cetera, even as they define themselves as fearless, freethinking leaders.

As Broadsheet noted a couple of days ago, this isn't about the pros and cons of particular candidates so much as the fact that this election is holding up a mirror to America's fixed ideas about gender and race. What strikes me about both Obama and Clinton is that they both embody the polar opposite from stereotypes of their gender or race. Yet for one, the identity has inspired a media myth of national redemption; for the other, a tangle of criticism and debate.

Yet as we've seen in New Hampshire, it's easy to overestimate the influence that a candidate's image or identity wields over voters. According to Margie Omero on the Pollster blog, all this talk of tears, emotions and women's righteous revenge may be far off the mark. The Democratic exit polls in New Hampshire suggest that nonworking women voted for Clinton by a whopping margin of 25 points (as opposed to the 3-point margin she received from women who do work). Omero makes an assiduous point that perhaps women didn't vote for Clinton based on emotions or her gender, but simply because of tangible issues like jobs. She argues that women without jobs largely come from the lower socioeconomic spectrum and that Clinton has long maintained strong support from working-class and poor voters. So maybe this primary wasn't about a circus of female feeling, but just the economy, stupid.

By Carol Lloyd

Carol Lloyd is currently at work on a book about the gentrification wars in San Francisco's Mission District.

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