Move over, Amy Poehler. Kate McKinnon’s Saturday Night Live cold open as an extremely ambitious Hillary Clinton, a presidential wannabe making only a passing attempt to downplay her intentions, has got the chattering classes talking. And to be snarky myself for a moment, there’s nothing the political media loves better than ceding their authority to judge candidates’ characters and policies to caricaturists on late-night TV.
Already, The Daily Beast is prognosticating doom for Hillaryland thanks to one well received, if rather typically executed SNL sketch:
In the sketch, Kate McKinnon lampoons Clinton’s awkward forays into relatability, and paints the former Secretary of State as deranged, power-mad, and wholly insincere. …if SNL continues on this route into the presidential race—and if McKinnon keeps knocking it out of the park as psycho-Hillary—the likely Democratic candidate might find some her most annoying 2016 adversaries are late-night sketch show writers.
Yet I’m not so sure that the new portrayal spells certain trouble for Clinton. First of all, McKinnon’s impression is only a few notches dialed up from Amy Poeheler’s friendlier take, and this is in accordance with Clinton’s more recent career as an international diplomat. On SNL, the overachieving, square schoolgirl has grown into the power-craving woman.
It’s also worth remembering that one of the reasons Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impression hit the candidate’s public image so hard is that Palin was a relative unknown before John McCain drafted her in 2008. Hillary Clinton, on the other hand, is a dominant cultural and political figure, star of memes and holder of a long and studied political record. “A lot of people have pretty strong opinions about Hillary before they watch an SNL skit about her,” says Kelly Dittmar, author of Navigating Gendered Terrain: Stereotypes and Strategy in Political Campaigns.
Clinton’s reputation as tough, ambitious, and calculating actually cuts against many of the stereotypes that normally hurt women candidates. “We associate things like strength and competence more strongly with men than with women,” says Dittmar, a Scholar at the Center for American Women and Politics at the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. “The stereotypes around men are the ones we associate with officeholders, so it’s easier for men to meet those standards.”
But the faulty gendered associations work both ways. “On the flip side, women have stereotypical advantages,” Dittmar says. “Women are seen as more ethical, honest, and often viewed as more capable of bringing change.” For Clinton, who is associated with her husband’s ethical record and is a member political dynasty, many of these traditional stereotypical hurdles might not exist. She isn’t seen as less strong or less competent than a male candidate might be. On the contrary, the issue which McKinnon’s portrayal could highlight is the opposite: the ballyhooed “relatability” factor. Clinton’s camp has worked so hard to transcend gender, to portray her as tough and commanding (remember the 3 AM phone call ad?), that it has given rise to the caricature McKinnon embodies, a woman who has lost her human touch. Of course, this is a gendered stereotype too — the idea that strength and normalcy can’t coexist for women.
According to Dittmar, SNL could actually help Clinton if she’s able to use it to demonstrate her own sense of humor and down-to-earth side, even coming on the show to laugh at McKinnon’s portrayal of her as she did with Poehler.
Another way the show could actually help: If the writers do what Tina Fey and Poehler did during the last campaign, which is poke fun at both the candidates and at their sexist treatment by the media. “Tina Fey’s ‘bitch is the new black’ wasn’t an actual portrayal of Clinton, but it raised these stereotypes, and was critical of the gendered treatment she received,” says Dittmar. “If you have a thoughtful writers on staff, you might actually see that they can use it as a forum to call out sexism. We’ll see if that conversation happens.”
Identifying sexism, it turns out, is a hugely important part of leveling the playing field for female candidates. A few years ago a campaign simulation run by the Name It. Change It. group, a task force on sexism in politics, demonstrated that sexist and gendered attacks put female candidates at a huge disadvantage. But calling out sexism erases that advantage:
Even in a simulated campaign environment, where a woman candidate has already been attacked, sexist coverage further diminishes her vote. It also deteriorates the perception that she is qualified – which strongly correlates with the vote. … When the woman candidate or a validating third-party organization stands up to confront sexist and racist coverage, voters respond well. The woman candidate responding herself shows the biggest gains.
More important than SNL‘s portrayal of Hillary, then, will be the role of the media as a whole in the campaign. Will reporters continue to ask questions like whether she can be a grandmother and president at the same time? Will they focus on her appearance? The latter can have a devastating effect, according to Name It. Change It:
Neutral, positive, and negative descriptions of the woman candidate’s appearance all had detrimental impacts on her candidacy. Importantly, the adverse reactions are not isolated to critiques of a woman’s appearance; even appearance coverage that purports to be neutral or complimentary damages the woman.
Can the political media, already showing signs of pre-election obsessiveness, figure out how to criticize a major female candidate for her policy positions and campaign strategy — without subjecting her to a gendered double standard? To me, that’s much more interesting question than the SNL portrayal. And it requires far more self-scrutiny.