In February I wrote about the media’s unfair representation of female politicians; in this post-“Texts from Hillary” world, I’m compelled to revisit the topic, in the same way that girls think critically about the media they consume through our Media Literacy program. All of a sudden, Hillary Clinton has been transformed from Bill’s unpleasant, power hungry wife to a hip, wise, and decidedly more relaxed diplomat. In a recent Gallup poll, Hillary was voted the most admired woman in America, beating out Oprah by 10 percentage points. So what happened? Did Hillary change, or did we?
Cultural commentator Alyssa Rosenburg suggests that Hillary became “cool” when she started using pop culture to engage the public and embrace her criticisms. Rosenburg writes, “It’s a process that began in 2007, when Clinton dressed up the decidedly gimmicky process of having supporters vote on a campaign song by turning the big reveal into a spoof of the ending of The Sopranos. What’s great about the spot is not just its piggy-backing on the cultural capital of one of America’s most iconic shows, but the way it played with popular conceptions about the Clintons themselves, the idea that Bill has a weakness for junk food, that Hillary can be a nag and possess an epic side-eye.”
Fast forward to 2012 and the “Texts from Hillary” phenomenon. Stacy Lambe and Adam Smith, communications professionals in Washington D.C., transformed a photographer of our Madam Secretary into an internet sensation, creating hilarious scenarios of Hillary texting with celebrities and politicians. What did Hillary do? She played along and submitted her own to their Tumblr blog.
In the years since her time as First Lady and New York Senator, Hillary has made room for herself to relax and be less concerned about public perceptions. Media reporter Howard Kurtz writes, “The woman has always been so carefully controlled on the public stage, so guarded in keeping her emotions in check… Four years ago, when Clinton appeared so wary of the press, it is impossible to imagine her playing along with a gag like ‘Texts from Hillary.’”
Fair enough, but she was careful because she had to be. She tried so hard to be taken seriously—as a woman, as a former First Lady, as a wife whose husband had a very public affair—that she was misunderstood (or misrepresented) as cold and stiff.
In her tenure as Secretary of State, she has been transformed from politician to diplomat, and the public seems more comfortable with that. It’s difficult to criticize her work as a strong advocate for women’s rights and alleviation of poverty in the developing world, and previous characterizations of blind political ambition have become irrelevant. “Texts from Hillary” didn’t make Hillary cool. We did. We found a way to relate to a female leader in a respectful way.