Hillary Clinton Helped Me Realize That Powerful Women Deserve Love
I was ten when Bill Clinton became president, right on that teetering edge between girlhood and all of the mysteries of puberty. This is the age when gender presentation and sexuality become painfully important; over the course of a year or two I went from not caring about the approval of boys to desperately wanting them to like me. And I was not a very likable teen: I had pitifully unfashionable clothes, I wore glasses and had bad skin, and I had an awful neediness that other kids could smell a mile away. I remember miserably trying to bargain with God, swearing that he could take away all of my brains and talents if only he would please, please let me be pretty.
Sometime during this time, I became aware of Hillary Clinton. The media that I was exposed to — that we were all exposed to — was very unflattering when it came to Hillary, and even as an 11- or 12-year-old I had the vague sense that she was a Bitch with a capital B. Hillary became a locus for all of my burgeoning internalized misogyny — everything I hated or feared about myself became magnified in her. She represented exactly the kind of woman I hoped I would never be.
I thought she looked mean. I thought she didn’t smile enough. I thought she was old and a killjoy and a nag and I couldn’t understand why the charming and funny Bill Clinton had married her. I thought she had too high of an opinion of herself. I thought she didn’t know her place.
When the Lewinsky scandal happened I thought, “Of course he cheated on her, anyone married to that bitch would cheat on her.” I was young and naive enough back then to think that husbands only cheat when they hate their wives or are not getting what they want at home. I assumed that Bill and Hillary were going to break up, and when they didn’t break up I decided their marriage was a sham and they were only staying together because of the optics of the situation. I certainly did not believe him when he said that he loved her.
As much as I blamed Hillary for Bill’s unfaithfulness, I also blamed Monica. It was like they existed in a binary system of shrew and temptress, one responsible for pushing her husband away and the other for luring him with promises of a blowjob. Remember how many jokes we made about how Hillary probably refused to do anything during sex except lie there in a missionary position, if she ever even allowed Bill to fuck her at all? “Imagine getting a blowjob from her,” one of my high school friends said. “It would be like sticking your dick in a bowl full of ice.”
I felt sorry for Bill for all of the above, and because I felt like she dragged him down. It seems so strange now to think that I pitied the powerful man who cheated on his wife in a way that wound up publicly opening her to ridicule, but I certainly wasn’t the only one to feel this way. The media spun the narrative in a way that made it clear this was exactly how they wanted us to feel. Don’t ever tell me our culture doesn’t hate women, when we’re taught to feel sorry for a man who has betrayed and humiliated his wife on an international stage.
My most shameful memory from that period of time is of seeing some paparazzi photo of them on vacation shortly after the impeachment trial. My memory is hazy, but I think they had gone on some kind of tropical vacation with the idea of reconnecting. In the pictures, Hillary was wearing a bathing suit, as one does on a tropical vacation. I did not think about the invasion of privacy committed by the photographer. I did not think about how awful it was that Bill and Hillary couldn’t have a moment to themselves. I did not think about the fact that the picture had been taken and published with the intent of demonstrating just exactly how unfuckable we were supposed to think Hillary’s body was. No, my first thought was, “Look at that frumpy bitch in a bathing suit.”
Because while this woman was living through having her most embarrassing and personal details smeared across headlines worldwide, my priority was making fun of how she looked in a swimsuit.
I never once wondered if Hillary might be a smart or funny or interesting person. I never wondered if she’d had a career before she became the First Lady; in fact, I assumed she hadn’t. It certainly never occurred to me how difficult it must have been for her to put all of her ambitions on hold so that her husband could have his dream job. I didn’t consider how constraining it must have been to be reduced to being little more than a decorative political wife, or how it must have felt to make so many personal sacrifices — like taking her husband’s name, a thing that would make me furious if I was ever forced into it — just so that her Bill could have what he wanted. And I’m sure that she was proud of Bill and happy to do whatever she could to support him, but that doesn’t mean that any of it was easy, especially considering that no matter what she did, she wound up dragged in the press.
I’ve thought a lot about the politics of desirability over the last decade — a decade, by the way, that has seen Bill Clinton continue to be praised for being a silver fox and has also featured an entire South Park episode dedicated to how old and gross Hillary’s vagina must be. I’ve struggled and continue to struggle with my own self-worth and appearance, both public and personal. Recently I burst into tears during a therapy session and confessed that I’m afraid everyone must feel sorry for my husband for being married to such a shrill bitch. On paper, at least some people’s paper, he looks so much better than I do; he’s a nice guy who has his degree and works a professional job, and I’m an uneducated woman hunched over a keyboard typing up angry feminist rants. I know this isn’t an accurate assessment, but I also know people are thinking it. I’ve been the one thinking it, after all.
I had a shock the other night when Bill was making his DNC speech. When he spoke of falling in love with Hillary and how they’ve built on that love over the years, I felt that same old knee-jerk reaction from when I was a teenager: the certainty that he doesn’t love her, that he never loved her, that he’s lying the way all politicians lie. And then I felt a pang of sadness that this belief is still somewhere deep inside me, even after so many years and so many revisions of how I see Hillary. The beliefs that find us earliest are the ones that sink their claws in us the deepest, and it’s hard to break out of decades-old patterns of thought. But it’s important to break out of them for all that.
We live in a world that teaches us that certain women — strong women, outspoken women, women of a certain age or appearance — are profoundly unloveable. This is as untrue as it is unfair, and buying into it is just another way of subscribing to the same old patriarchal idea that only women who conform to a strict set of prescribed gender roles deserve love. I deserve love and so do all of the other mouthy bitches out there, and I’m profoundly grateful to Hillary Clinton for helping me recognize that.
Lead image: Hillary Clinton/flickr