Nothing makes me more sympathetic to Hillary Clinton than the media harping on her “likability factor,” which strikes many observers as a deeply gendered line of thinking. She’s a fairly popular politician with fervent factions both in her camp and against it, and though her poll numbers have slipped thanks to a robust challenge from Bernie Sanders, my guess is she’s going to have a much easier lock on the nomination than the headlines have us believing.
Yet the “Is she likable enough?” narrative is here to stay, and the Clinton camp is hard at work on her “image.” “Clinton is in a straitjacket,” Michelle Goldberg recently noted at the Nation. “She’s excoriated for her inauthenticity, but also for whatever glimpses we get of her humanity: her wrinkles, her laugh, her awkward fashion sense, her devotion to her philandering husband.”
One of the ways Clinton is trying to escape this straitjacket is by talking more about women’s issues and embracing the feminist image that grew around her during the 2008 election, culminating in her speech about “that highest and hardest glass ceiling.” She’s particularly going after the feminist-friendly millennial demographic.
To that end, she talked about campus rape and the connection between social gender issues and economic inequality with Refinery29 recently, and today a clip of a forthcoming interview with none other than Lena Dunham — for Dunham’s new publication Lenny Letter – was released. The clip, bookended by a jaunty Le Tigre intro (“Hot Topic,” of course) consisted of Dunham asking Clinton the “F-word” question and Clinton eagerly jumping in to say yes.
“Yes, absolutely. I’m always a little bit puzzled when any woman of whatever age, but particularly a young woman, says something like, ‘Well, I believe in equal rights but I’m not a feminist,'” said Clinton, as Dunham dissolved into happy giggles. “Well, a feminist is by definition someone who believes in equal rights. I’m hoping that people will not be afraid to say, that doesn’t mean you hate men, it doesn’t you want to separate out the world, so you’re not a part of ordinary life – that’s not what it means at all! It just means that we believe that women have the same rights as men.”
It read like she was a feminist blogger expressing exasperation at a celebrity saying “I’m not a feminist, but…” The message was clear: Clinton truly is one of us. And Dunham echoed feminist concerns about Clinton’s image in a phone call to CNN this afternoon: “I do think we expect really different things, in terms of likability from our female candidates, than we do from our male candidates.”
Now, it’s easy to make fun of Dunham and Clinton being together for various reasons, and I certainly won’t take the reservations I have about either of them and chuck them out the window because of one nice videotaped exchange.
But I actually admit that the enthusiasm with which Clinton offered her “yes!” before Dunham had even finished asking the “are you a…” question was gratifying to behold. It bolsters the argument that Clinton would be a revolutionary president, not because she’s a woman but because she’s a pro-woman woman, which is a bigger rarity. So many pioneering female politicians have to position themselves as tough or even anti-feminist to get elected, playing against type. There’s been some of that triangulating with Clinton’s stances on various issues, particularly foreign policy, but her embrace of feminism actually makes her a more exciting, and daring candidate than she would otherwise be. And it shows that someone on the left has finally learned that shirking a given label from the right wing isn’t going to work — better to embrace it.
In addition, the clip offers a nice moment of intergenerational feminist solidarity — when so many intergenerational feminist moments are framed by the discourse of “warfare” or hostility. Of course, Dunham and Clinton both represent a mainstream, white version of feminism (Amy Schumer also appears in the full video — a trifecta!) so their agreement isn’t so shocking, but from a media standpoint, it’s still great to watch.
I can’t magically forecast whether Clinton will be able to win over millennial women with this hip charm offensive, but I like this first taste of her with Dunham and the reminder it offers of her candidacy’s advantages for women.