One thing that is astonishing about this year’s presidential race is what it tells us about ourselves, and specifically, what decades of conditioning by animated films, the music industry, the film industry and the Oscar race tells us about how we’ve been taught to think about women.
Polygraph has analyzed over 2,000 screenplays in one of the largest studies ever done about the representation of women versus men in film. If you’ve raised a child since the animation boom began you will have noticed that the majority of these stories center around a male protagonist, but for the odd Mulan here or there. It was a frustrating way for me to raise my daughter, taking her to film after film, animated and live action, all telling us the same thing: the most important person in the story is the young male hero. The females exist, the minority sidekicks exist, to bolster the protagonists confidence and help him bring the story to its conclusion. This has also become true of almost all Hollywood films aimed at adults, as we all know. It has only gotten worse as Hollywood has taken aim at ticket buyers internationally, where audiences are presumed to prefer central male protagonists and women are either young eye-candy or not there at all. With the exception of a few names like Jennifer Lawrence, Shailene Woodley and Kristen Stewart, women in film are interchangeable. Women of color hardly get cast or considered at all.
The results are dramatic:
We already knew that since the 1980s, and with the rise of fanboy driven cinema and film criticism, women over 40 were seen to be of little use. Then the cutoff became women over 30. Now it is almost down to women over 25, in a world where someone like Scarlett Johansson must move out of the way for the next young hot actress who will become the fleeting momentary obsession. Stories about women have been exiled to the Lifetime Network, or flung to far off places and eventually “discovered” on Amazon Prime or Netflix. “Oh look, it’s another movie with a female lead that no one is talking about.” We also know that television in recent years has given women a bit of a break.
But still, for decades American culture has not found nor provided an adequate place to showcase strong-willed women in a way that allows younger generations to see someone like Hillary Rodham Clinton as anything but a negative stereotype.
The Huffington Post’s Sam Levine has attempted to frame the candidates for president in terms of New York stereotypes. With very little positive references for Levine to draw upon — and how could there be? If he wasn’t well-schooled growing up about all the different types of women there are in the world, he can only parrot back stereotypes he’s come to know from pop culture. And therein lies the rub: there aren’t any that aren’t negative. Levine’s opinion of the two Democratic candidates sharply illustrates just how negative stereotypes of older women have been shaped by American films and television. Levine, whose previous headlines include: “Bernie Sanders Bird Shows Us How Great Politics Can Be,” is someone whose opinions about Hillary and Bernie spring from the “good” and “evil” stereotypes he’s likely cut his teeth on, and certainly those that have a stranglehold on the Sanders campaign and younger voters overall.
Levine goes easier on Trump, writing about him as you’d expect: “Donald Trump is the New Yorker of the movies whom everyone loves to hate.” Easy stereotype, the “lovable villain.” Trump gets away with as much as he does because such characters are only erratically punished in films. Most of the time, they get shrugged off with a combination of admiration and shame. There is a reason Trump became the media’s candidate. He’s a trainwreck, but he is a compelling one. From NPR to the New York Times to every outlet online, election year coverage has been nothing but Trump, Trump, Trump. We have no problem finding Trumps in our pop culture references. They are everywhere. The billionaire villain who keeps expensive arm candy while tending to a multi-billion dollar empire, not to mention running for office on a lark, just for the kick of doing it. Think: A Face in the Crowd.
There are also no shortage of Bernie Sanders antecedents in film and they don’t age out. They are here to stay, beloved and untouchable. Here, Levine has painted him as the lovable mensch:
Bernie Sanders, who was raised in Brooklyn, comes from a different New York. He’s the borough activist who shows up to every community board meeting and speaks out against every new development. He’s the Brooklynite who has a falling out at synagogue after synagogue over disagreements with the rabbi. He enjoys a good schmear, but won’t eat at Katz’s on principle because the sandwiches are too expensive (“Let’s just get a hot dog at Gray’s Papaya”).
Sanders’ New York is one that seeks to preserve its authentic past — the subways had more charm when there was all that graffiti; Park Slope was so much more fun before it became infested with all those damn baby strollers. He’s the guy worried about being priced out of his neighborhood and overcrowding in schools, who looks back fondly to a time when kids played outside in the streets until dinner. He hates that there are rats in the city. But he also marvels at just how big they are. “Only in New York!” He refuses to step foot in Duane Reade, choosing to pay more for his bathroom supplies at the local bodega.
Words like “authentic” and “charm” skip happily next to too-good-to-be-true observations like he hates rats in the city but is also such a cool nature guy he marvels at how big they are. He’s a lovable old Jew, like Woody Allen or Larry David. Plenty of room in our culture for men like him and they are NEVER villains. He’s Howard Beale shouting out the window, “We’re mad as hell and we’re not going to take it anymore!”
The stereotype does accurately depict the political monster Sanders has actually revealed himself to be — in the end resorting to stereotypical sexist attacks on Clinton’s judgment, qualifications and character — all but branding her a racist in his quest to chip away at her support by black voters. From the beginning of his campaign, the Sanders camp has systematically played outside the rules — allowing themselves free reign because of their disrespect for his opponent, Clinton: stolen data, stolen endorsements, rude dismissals during debates, a faked Elizabeth Warren endorsement as an April Fool’s joke that has magically morphed into a half-truth — as a “paid advertisement” on DailyKos. How is any casual observer to know that, in fact, Warren has not endorsed Bernie Sanders? They wouldn’t, probably, unless they are a Hillary Clinton supporter.
When a bird landed on the Bern’s podium in Portland it turned into a “sign from god” from his supporters. It made national news and became a campaign slogan. The “good” Bernie Sanders would, of course, draw an endorsement from Mother Nature. Meanwhile, that same week, he did this to his wife – watch closely:
“Don’t stand next to me,” Sanders says, and virtually elbows her aside. When this became sort of news, someone tweeted to me — “Oh, he’s just behaving like a typical Jew, like Larry David.” Even Saturday Night Live has found a way to turn Larry David’s spot-on Bernie impersonation into an asset for Sanders — making it very easy for people to simply forgive everything Sanders does and says because they like Larry David so much. What was Curb Your Enthusiasm about if it wasn’t about loving a lovable asshole. In her husband’s moment of victory, poor Jane Sanders clearly doesn’t quite know how to react to being pushed aside like that. She tries to recover but it was a revealing glimpse into what their marriage must be like. And yet, no one seems to care. There’s no condemnation for it except from the Hillary side who tried to make “rude Bernie” happen. You see, Bernie’s “lovable mensch” has become so deeply embedded, there’s nothing much that can shake it.
Sanders is allowed to do this and he’s not only cheered on by his supporters, but they all – even the young women — think Hillary deserved to be dismissed the same way, with a finger jab and arm wave, just like Jane Sanders was. Why, because there is a big space carved out in our culture for a guy like Bernie Sanders, so much so that he can do and be all of these contradictory things and still emerge as Saint Bernie of the Finches.
Next, we come to Levine’s New Yorker stereotype of Hillary, and he sums up exactly what most (cis) men, and many women, really think of her — based on nothing more than how she looks, how she talks, what she wears and where she fits in with ingrained their notion of personality types:
Hillary Clinton too is a New Yorker, but an adopted one (yeah, yeah, she didn’t actually live in the city), She’s all those people with roots elsewhere who moved to the City That Never Sleeps to launch a new phase in their lives. Her New York is for people who are remaking themselves, uncertain of what the future holds. It’s a New York filled with trips to Lincoln Center and the Met, and walks around Central Park simply for the purpose of having a “New York experience.” Took a stroll along the Highline once, but it was just too crowded.
Clinton is the New Yorker who flips through Zagat’s to find the best place to eat on the Upper East Side, rather than following a friend’s suggestion about the new Vietnamese joint. She used to go out to brunch, but claims the lines just became insufferably long and “no one takes reservations any more!” She’s very happy there are no longer porn shops in Times Square, but is totally bewildered they put Guy Fieri’s American Kitchen & Bar there (she likely cut out and saved The New York Times’ scathing review). She hustles for tickets to “Hamilton,” but only because they’re so hard to get.
Nothing in this entire summary reveals anything about Hillary’s actual persona, but instead falls back on the weak tea of culture tropes that causes women over the age of 40, 50 or in Hillary’s case, 60 to be written off at best, and terminated at worst. What do they do with her? How do they make her seem cool? They judge everything about her, top to bottom in a fictionalized framework of mild mockery because positive representations for women like Hillary are so scarce.
Why is it so hard to define Hillary Clinton in terms she has forged for herself, a strong resilient woman who sat on live TV for 13 hours straight while members of a deplorable GOP show-trial hearing lobbed stupid question after stupid question at her and she remained calm, composed and articulate throughout. Instead we get Sanders and his people looking askance at her steadfast ambition. We get bombarded with about 10,000 terrible photos of her that the Right has generated and collected for decades — images that Bernie supporters have now appropriated for their own nasty memes. They don’t have a coherent slot to put her in, so they’ve decided the slot where she belongs is the one the GOP created for her and other women they see as threats — the overly ambitious, scheming wife. In the eyes of people like that, no good can come from a wife who decides to have her own political career. Wives are supposed to remain quietly on the sidelines and give safe speeches.
That brings us to the speaking engagements. For most women to command the impressive fees that Hillary receives would normally be considered a fine achievement. She is, after all, one of the most sought-after speakers in the world. But for her detractors, such fees couldn’t possibly be based on her experience or prestige — because she is, after all, a scheming wife. So it must be for “corrupt” reasons. Clinton probably figured she would be that person who just gave great speeches for the rest of her life until an opportunity presented itself. What was that opportunity? Admiration from the people of the United States. Her poll numbers were through the roof and everyone else wanted her to run again for President. Now that she’s there, Sanders has nothing to attack her with so he goes with the easy sexist stereotypes. Our culture has nowhere to put her so those who do not support her happily and comfortably attempt to portray her into an empty shell, as Levine has tried to do above. He doesn’t know anything about her except how she looks and talks, so he draws assumptions.
Films and other entertainment aimed at children for the past few decades have almost always centered around the boy who makes good. The underdog who saves the day. Women are either the prize (he gets the girl) or the supporting mother figure, cheering on the boy. Whenever an older women does appear, they are either non-threatening grandma types, or confused meddling overbearing types. Even with shows like Veep and Madame Secretary, we’re still presented with women who pass the litmus test of fuckability — even if they often lampoon this very notion. A woman who is 68 is not supposed to be running for the highest office in the land. She’s not expected to entertain millennials, have a sense of humor, or try to “have fun!” — all the while, being careful not to put people off with her voice, or dressing too young or dressing too old. She has to be able to pour a beer right, and know how to use a metro card as if she does it every day. If Bernie Sanders fails at all of these things he is immediately forgiven. (Remember, when Bernie was asked if he knew how to use the subway, he said, quote-unquote: “What do you mean? You get a token and you get on.” And everyone goes, “Aww, that Bernie! He’s adorable!”)
So what’s a woman to do in order to earn the admiration of snotty editors at Huffington Post? Probably there’s nothing to be done. With the force of 50 years of cultural dismissal to overcome, in spite of everything Hillary has already accomplished in her life and career, there’s nothing she can do to earn their admiration because cool isn’t something you can study to become. That’s never been an image she could work to achieve. In fact, the more you work for it, the worse off you’ll be. One of the biggest reasons I admire Hillary Clinton is that she understands all of this stuff because she’s been around, fellas. She understands it and she never takes it personally. She says upfront to the young ones: “You don’t have to be here for me. I will be here for you.” Spoken like a true mother.
How did things get so messed up that we as a species in this country seem so resistant to allowing a matriarch this worthy to be in charge? You’ll hear many Bernie people say, “But I like Elizabeth Warren! She could be my choice for president.” But Elizabeth Warren is someone who is very much placed within a different cultural context. She’s more like Tea Leoni than Hillary is because she hasn’t yet stepped out of the role as Mrs. Smith Goes to Washington. The moment that she does, the moment she pushes a little too far as Hillary has done, she might not fare so well with a public that has already typecast her as a kind of “Progressive’s sweetheart.”
Because her early life has been eclipsed by that of her brilliant, flawed husband, our previous two-term Democratic president who righted so many wrongs of the Reagan-Bush regime, Hillary will always be seen by some as “Bill’s wife” — the wife who tried to grab more than her opponents think she deserves. In case you’re wondering why it’s important to carve out a place for women like that in American film and in American culture? Now you’re seeing why. If this society hasn’t made a proper place for her, she has to make that place on her own. And that, my friends, is a revolution.