Bill and Hillary Clinton have been plagued by conspiracy theories throughout most of their life in the public eye, perhaps more than any other politicians in history. The Clinton BS Files are a weekly in-depth look at the stories behind some of these conspiracy theories. Read last week’s post.
From the moment she stepped into the national spotlight during her husband's 1992 presidential campaign, Hillary Clinton's body has been an object of widespread scorn. Even though she was younger than her predecessor, Barbara Bush, and wore boring preppy clothes, the press was absolutely obsessed with policing the way she presented herself and generally judging her to be a failure at meeting its standards of femininity.
"Hillary's hair bands: Zippy or just dippy?" read a USA Today headline in February 1992. In the article, writer Elizabeth Snead negatively compared the "headstrong bands" to "Nancy's red suits" or "Barbara's classy pearls."
Clinton changed her hair, as many women do, repeatedly. Her critics were never satisfied. But as Snead's odd use of the word "headstrong" suggests, perhaps the objection wasn't really to her hair but to the head underneath it, filled with all sorts of unwomanly impulses, such as ambition and feminism.
In the same year, Lois Romano of The Washington Post described Clinton in her early days in Arkansas as looking like "an overweight, underdressed policy wonk who hadn't seen daylight for a while" and said her '90s-era "Talbots wife" look caused some to wonder "aloud if she had had plastic surgery."
And that's just the nicer things you can find. Clinton's legs were endlessly dissected, especially in the right-wing press. Even in 2008, Rush Limbaugh was blathering on about how Clinton supposedly "could not cross her legs."
Denigrating women's looks is a tried-and-true way to attack them for being smart, outspoken or ambitious.
This is the context of the numerous conspiracy theories on the right about Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton's heath. Claiming to believe a woman is unhealthy is a way to demean her looks under the guise of concern.
This is something fat women who put themselves in the public eye see all the time. Photos of a fat woman having fun, modeling fashionable clothes or doing important work — anything, really, except hiding in their homes in shame — will draw out a chorus of voices expressing "concern" for her health. As if she would somehow be healthier if she hid her body away where you can't see it!
You see this pattern enough and it becomes clear that these folks aren't really that worried about a stranger's health. Rather, they are looking for a socially acceptable way to express displeasure at women who think they have a right to exist in the world as something other than decorative but silent objects.
Something similar is going on with the supposed concerns about Clinton's health. Conservatives have become aware that in today's environment open sexism can backfire on them in electoral terms. So instead of calling Clinton ugly, they have resorted to rattling on about her health.
What's funny is that the current rumors that Clinton is sick started out as another kind of sexist urban legend — that Clinton was actually faking illness.
(The stereotype about women frequently faking or exaggerating illness is so widespread that it actually affects the level of medical care women get. Doctors tend to neglect women out of a belief they are faking their symptoms.)
In 2012, Clinton had to postpone her testimony before a congressional committee on Benghazi because she got dehydrated from the flu, fainted and suffered a head injury that led to concussion. She recovered, but the right-wing noise machine was already off with the crazed accusations about her faking her illness. Fox News and Glenn Beck both helped push the rumors that Clinton's concussion was just a little lady getting the vapors rather than facing the supposed Benghazi watchdogs.
But leave it to Karl Rove to see that there was a greater opportunity here: a chance to create a conspiracy theory about Clinton's health, which taps into an even darker vein of cultural misogyny.
Rove floated the idea that Clinton was suffering "brain damage" on Fox News shortly after her concussion. He immediately walked it back but not until the damage was done and the idea had started to burn through right-wing land. No longer did conservatives need to carry on about her having thick legs or bad hair. Now they can just say she looks tired and claim that they are just, you know, concerned.
The ridiculous conspiracy theories floating around about Clinton's health are too numerous to recount here, but here's a sampling: Clinton comically faking a double take was really her having a seizure. Or there are leaked medical records showing that Clinton has brain damage. Or she has Parkinson's disease.
Oodles of right-wing bloggers are obsessed with a Secret Service agent who works with Clinton a lot and who they claim is a secret health care worker there to rush in with a shot if she has a seizure.
The biggest proponent of that last one is Mike Cernovich, who helped organize the anti-feminist harassment campaign known as Gamergate and is one of those bizarre "self-help" gurus pushing a chest-thumping, woman-hating version of masculinity. (Tom Cruise's character in "Magnolia" is a dead-on parody of the subculture, which includes the self-styled "pick-up artists" as well.)
It is not a coincidence that someone so immersed in misogyny and toxic masculinity is obsessed with the Clinton health conspiracy theory. It's just further proof that "concerns" about women's health are a coded way to attack women for being ambitious and in the public eye.
"In the United States, powerful women who make bids for education, status and position have long been seen as sick: weak, sterile, overweight, ugly or broken," Rebecca Onion recently wrote in Slate. For instance, she said, in the 19th century, opponents of college education for women argued that it would damage women's health and fertility.
"In early 20th-century American and English debates over women’s suffrage, anti-suffrage propaganda depicted suffragists as overweight, ugly and 'mannish' — their bodies and faces physically reflecting their own unnatural sentiments," Onion continues.
That strategy continues today.
"Does Feminism Make Women Ugly?" asked a 2015 headline at Breitbart.
The author, Milo Yiannopoulos, believes the answer is yes: Merely embracing feminism has the power to distort a woman's body, he argued, and somehow damages her health and femininity.
"So the research suggests that relentlessly assertive women, particularly women in positions of authority, are unwittingly throwing their hormones out of whack," Yiannopoulos wrote.
His link supposedly proving this goes to a story about how adopting a confident posture can make both men and women feel temporarily more confident. There is not a single word in there about permanent changes to physiology or even any indication that it's "unnatural" for women to feel confident.
"Higher testosterone levels can produce dramatic changes, most noticeably to a woman’s face. Muscle mass and distribution can shift and hair grows faster and more thickly," Yiannopoulos wrote, with a confidence that is inversely proportional to the actual evidence he has for this malarkey.
High on the smell of his own bullshit, Yiannopoulos even ventured to speculate that feminism can change a woman's bone structure.
(Full disclosure: I'm one of the women whose hormone levels Yiannopoulos, uh, "diagnoses," with a photo from 2009.)
This isn't just nut picking, unfortunately. The misogynist trope equating feminism with ill health has percolated into mainstream discourse, through the great orange conduit known as Donald Trump. The notoriously misogynist Republican presidential nominee has been hitting this conspiracy theory hard on the campaign trail, accusing Clinton of not having "stamina" and letting people's ability to use Google do the rest.
Because the mainstream media all too often lets Trump lead them by the nose, these accusations have caused journalists to swarm like locusts at the smallest hint that Clinton is under the weather. It turned out she had a mild case of pneumonia and rather than own up to the shame of letting paranoid misogynists shape your coverage, many journalists have tried to blame Clinton for the whole episode, accusing her of hiding stuff from them because she didn't publicize her initial diagnosis.
Watching self-evidently silly right-wing nonsense gain traction in the mainstream media is depressing, but this history of obsessing over the bodies of feminists — and over Hillary Clinton's especially — shows why conservative propagandists like Rove were right in thinking this could take off. The belief that ambition is unnatural and therefore unhealthy for women runs deep. It didn't take much tickling for the sexist impulses lurking under our country's veneer of decency to come erupting out.