Hillary Clinton is no damsel in distress. Julia Gillard the former prime minister of Australia was called a witch during her tenure as that country’s leader. Listen to the former prime minister speaking in Malcolm Gladwell’s Revisionist History podcast. She talks of the gendered attack she faced while serving as the first woman prime minister of Australia. She famously called it out in the Australian parliament in what is now known as the ‘misogyny speech‘.
On The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, actor Hugh Laurie could not understand why Americans so hated Hillary Clinton, to which Colbert laughingly said you had to be around in the ’90s to understand. Clinton’s grossest misdemeanour seems to be that she’s entitled and privileged by her connections in Washington power circles. Her leaked emails shine an American flashlight on that privilege. This privilege instead of shielding her as it would another member of the elite doesn’t serve to protect her. Instead it acts to amplify the misogyny of the general public. Gloria Steinem told NDTV India that it’s because she’s a woman with ambition. Because she’s no damsel in distress, people seem to hate her even more. The easiest way to fit in is to conform to prevailing gender stereotypes. If not you will find yourself a loner unless you enjoy power like Hillary Clinton. More power to her though, not less.
Maybe it’s the fairy tales. Popular literature, television news, religion and politics are transitioning from an age of intricate literary detail to larger-than-life allegoricals. The rise of right-wing politics around the globe signal that people want symbols rather than complicated, intricate explications. It’s a paradox, as in the pursuit of an equitable world detailed explication is key. In the absence of information, extreme left-wing and right wing politics will fill the gaps with authoritarianism attached to symbols, which leads to inequity, and yes fairy tales. Ironically, people who began supporting the extremes were looking for ways to strike down the inequity and correlated corruption created by centrally placed powerful elites. Someone like say Hillary Clinton.
In life, usually thanks to the hierarchical nature of human interactions, there is often little equality to be had, as we are programmed to look out for and respect symbols without question starting with parental or elder figures. Family ties and friendships form the core of human sociability. However, the hierarchy in social and intimate relationships is such that even in close relationships dominance rituals take precedence and most of all interaction is aspirational grasping and survival of the fittest.
From caste/race groupings to gender biases to elite influential power circles, inequity is so ingrained, it is part of the social fabric. Someone like Hillary Clinton has developed the skill and also the privilege to navigate successfully through the weft and warp of these biases. It has taken her a long time to achieve this. Ironically, her success at this has only served to engender more resentment. Remember the misogynistic furore when an all girls Ghostbusters movie came out this year. Or when the new Star Wars film cast a girl as its lead. When a woman, like actress Leslie Jones, for instance, successfully breaks the glass ceiling, she is not lauded. Instead she has to face a hysterical masculine fury. Even the word ‘hysteria’ can be traced back to misogynistic etymology. It is derived from the Greek word for womb hustera.
Those who are not skilled at navigating the choppy seas of these unequal human interactions turn to stories that have always provided the scope for vicarious equity that life fails to give. But there is a dark side to turning for solace to culture’s foundational stories, myths and fairy tales in which dominance rituals are upended to achieve balance. These stories are far too often uni-dimensional and they reinforce the very human desire for narratives that begin and end neatly in a collective appeasement of our anxiety. In these tales we find closure from social anxiety. But closure is merely another full stop, a modern spin on the fairy-tale ending. We put beginnings, middles and endings into our stories because in life there is only ever a state of present continuous. As anthropocentric humans we mark birth as an arbitrary starting point, and death as an end. But life goes on, before birth and after death as individuals are not the centre of the universe, though we place our selves there. Not even the universe we see is the centre of the universe. Cosmologists will tell us there could be other big bangs out there and a myriad other universes.
Fairy tales serve a vital function. An allegorical story stands in opposition to literary fiction through its ability to strip intimate specifics from a story to help us connect through emblems and symbolism. But beware when these tales and myths help in attuning the mind to stereotypes. Recall the emblematic female figures at the heart of them that are either always suffering or need rescuing, or are otherwise incapable of looking after themselves. In these tales, when they are powerful they are depicted as mean with witch-like powers. This means that in life if we are presented with a woman who is influential or successful, we feel she must be the antithesis of the nice, submissive girl from the tales. We are primed then to react with defensive misogyny. In the prevalent American fairy tale, Hillary Clinton is cast in a negative role, just like Julia Gillard was in Australia. It’s almost fashionable for American voters to openly declare their dislike for her.