Saturday, July 5, 2008

Review: 30 Ways of Looking at Hillary

In a recent trip to my town's library, I unexpectedly picked up a book about Hillary Clinton. I've never had the inclination to pick up her book, Living History, so I was a little surprised that my attention was held by Thirty Ways of Looking at Hillary: Reflections By Women Writers, a book among the 6 or so new arrivals (I also picked up Stephen Prothero's Religious Literacy and a book entitled When Did Jesus Become Republican?, leaving precious few other new selections for the other residents of my sleepy little town). The book is what its title proclaims it to be: 30 different takes on Hillary Clinton by 30 different women writers. I wouldn't necessarily recommend that everyone I know go out and have a look. Like all compilations, it has some essays worth reading and some that are best skipped. No one needs to read "Political Animals" by Susan Orlean, an essay that examines what Hillary's lack of personal pet ownership says about her and her candidacy. "RE: Hillary" was kind of a bust as well.

Unsurprisingly and unfortunately, the essays that were my favorites played to my preconceived notions of Hillary, gender, and the like. "Monarchy in the Making" was just the ravings of a liberal lunatic, someone who seemed incapable of recognizing how political families aren't necessarily a bad thing, and that it takes more than two people from the same family being democratically elected to make a monarchy. "The Road to Cleavagegate" was one that I was looking forward to reading when I first glanced at the table of contents, and was deeply disappointed with the level of analysis the nature of the beast was given. Plus, it had the ire-inducing statement, "No one thinks it diminishes a male candidate when he fluffs up his masculinity by discussing his favorite sports team in an interview. Clinton -or any woman- should not feel aggrieved if she is asked about her favorite designer". I shook my head violently at that statement, and not just because I can tell you more about my favorite sports teams than any designer; I mean, I'm someone who thought for the longest time that the designer Hermes was pronounced the same way the Greek god is. It is because as long as the male candidate isn't asked about his favorite designer along with the sports questions, and the female candidate isn't asked about her sports teams period, it is still an inherently sexist question.

The book definitely has some worthwhile moments; my anger toward Robin Givhan ("Cleavagegate"'s author) was alleviated and my enjoyment of the book as a whole grew when a later essay by Leslie Bennetts, "Beyond Gender", looked sourly upon Givhan's Washington Post fashion editorial about Clinton's cleavage -thought without name checking Givhan directly. It was an excellent moment, though probably a red-faced one for both authors involved. I bet when Givhan was proclaiming that the Clinton campaign overreacted to her statements of Clinton's femininity, she wasn't expecting to be quoted as comparing that femininity to seeing a man with his fly unzipped. And Bennetts herself probably hadn't anticipated Givhan's own participation in the project.

Several of the authors made it about the personal first and then connected their own history to Hillary. A couple failed, boring me completely. "The Validator" by Kathryn Harrison is one of those, more about her dictator of a grandmother than Hillary. But a couple really succeed. "Hillary's Underpants" by Lara Vapnyar and "Hell, My Name Is..." by Cristina Henriquez both manage to find the balance necessary for a compelling essay. (Hint: the balance is more toward the subject than toward the author.)

There is one contention made time and time again through the book; well, two. One is about Hillary's outward appearance. The very first essay is entitled "Yellow Pantsuit" and it rambles on and on and on about how Hillary-in-pantsuit (of presumably any color) is putting on a costume that belies her hippie clothing and coke-bottle frames of the past, instead of acknowledging that no one is going to get elected president wearing a pooka-shell necklace or peace beads; please, that would be like getting elected without wearing a flag pin. It also neglects the fact that Obama and McCain both would probably be more comfortable in jeans than their suits. Several others talk about how unattractive she is/was, or how she is perceived as unattractive. I went on the 'web and googled up a few images; what I found didn't horrify me. In fact, the woman of those pictures, especially the early pictures, is a woman I could see befriending. Mostly though, the articles about her looks and sense of style were boring and ignored the real issues of women in politics, one of them being "Why the hell are we so hung up on their clothes?" One essay attempted to cover that, but instead highlighted statements made by Hillary's detractors without offering many reasons as to what influenced their opinions.

The second assertion is that women don't like Hillary. I find that odd; I know there are women out there who dislike her. But a majority of the women I know like Hillary well enough. A few, like my mother and I, love her. And really, how many politicians do people really and truly love, or even like? There is a reason Bill, JFK, RFK, and the Gipper are held up as beacons; they are four politicians in modern times who managed to elicit an at times logic-defying, rock-star equivalent love from their constituents among the hundreds who are met with more tepid responses. No one truly loved Jimmy Carter or Richard Nixon (especially now with Nixon). No one went ga-ga over LBJ. The Roosevelts, yes. But a vast majority of our politicians fall into that nether region of necessary more than likable.

The essays I liked the best were the ones that surprised me; the ones that went beyond the surface of the thing and really looked at some of the issues writhing underneath. Some of them reverberated with anger. Others were more tongue in cheek. But the ones I liked said something. And the ones I didn't like? Well, they said the same old thing.

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