In the first moments of Hulu’s new documentary Hillary, a woman’s voice, presumably that of director Nanette Burstein, instructs Hillary Clinton to speak as she’s still being fussed over by someone from the glam squad. “So, we want to hear your story, unvarnished, beginning to end,” the disembodied voice says.
But who is we? Is the collective pronoun referring to fans of Clinton, foes, or both? Because the lines are pretty clearly delineated and have been for 30 years. Of her own polarizing legacy, Clinton says she would like the epitaph “She’s neither as good nor as bad as some people say about her” engraved on her tombstone. But the documentary clearly disagrees. Instead the four-part series toggles between Clinton’s past—her early life, law school, feminism, her years as a politician’s wife and then her years as a politician herself—and the recent past, notably the 2016 election, in order to seemingly prove that the main barrier to Clinton’s success has always been “likability” rather than any real missteps on Clinton’s part. None of this is new territory; questions around whether or not anyone “likes” Hillary have persisted since her name first appeared in newspapers. The answer has not changed in three decades: some people really do like her, and others very vocally do not.
When Bill Clinton was first elected president, I was nine years old and living in Northwest Louisiana, not too far from Little Rock, Arkansas, where the Clintons had long been famous, or infamous, depending on who you asked. And for the majority of my life, Hillary Clinton has been a bogeywoman: a cautionary tale of how unlikable feminism—defined in my childhood as just a general failure to please men—makes a person. Bumper stickers around town declared “I want my doctor, not Hillary’s” in response to her healthcare reform plans, directing the vitriol not at the plans themselves but at the fact that they were Hillary Clinton’s idea. When conversations turned to politics at family gatherings, Bill Clinton’s affairs and the multiple allegations against him of sexual assault were always “jokingly” chalked up to Hillary Clinton’s “mannish” appearance. Even Chelsea Clinton was openly mocked for not being a cute enough little girl—perhaps due to her mother’s lack of sufficiently feminine genetic material, or so the joke went. So in the 2016 election, I’d already heard everything Donald Trump was saying and worse, ad nauseam, around my childhood Thanksgiving tables and Christmas trees for a quarter of a century. The election taught me nothing about how hated she was, but it did teach me that she also had fans. People who were unashamed to like her publicly, as I had privately.
And those who already like Clinton are, most likely, the only people watching Burstein’s glowing portrait. In the Atlantic, Burstein says that her goal for the documentary was not to reveal any new information about Clinton, but instead to present her life as a “case study” in an attempt to answer the question of whether or not a woman can ever be elected president. But the real goal seems to be a portrait of the ways sexism shaped Clinton. As the Atlantic points out, Hillary spends a lot of time focusing on the mixed messages with which Clinton has had to cope throughout her time in public life: pressure to be “unfeminine” in law school, demands that she be more feminine and domestic as a politician’s wife, and finally, the simultaneous claims that she is both too cold to be elected president yet too emotional to be president. But Hillary’s target audience most likely already agrees that the real winner of the 2016 election was sexism—and a four-hour recap of those same, valid, griefs is just as infuriating and exhausting as these ideas have always been. But with no new questions, it’s also ultimately unproductive. The choir is assembled. Is there anything new to add to the sermon?
The documentary was created out of generally warm, intimate footage taken by Clinton’s 2016 campaign staffers, who believed they may one day make a movie about her rise to the presidency. Instead, Burstein layers those joyful images with old news stories, interviews with Bill, Chelsea, and retrospectives from friends and former staffers to create a post-game dissection, not of any ways Clinton went wrong, but all the ways the rigid rules for becoming a powerful public figure failed her in favor of less competent men. It’s a story that feels familiar, possibly because versions of it have been repeated constantly since election night.
Supposing Hillary is a post-game play-by-play, the narrative is surprisingly light on “What ifs.” The documentary makes a conspicuous effort to frame the allegations of sexual harassment and assault leveraged against Bill Clinton and the unbalanced power dynamics of his sexual relationship with Monica Lewinsky, an intern at the time, as “affairs.” And Hillary seems content to study the impact of Clinton’s decision to remain married (let alone have him campaign for her) as a matter of public perception: Did “standing by her man” make her more or less likable? But Hillary never interrogates the deeper problems of the role she played in salvaging her husband’s reputation by discrediting his accusers. Nor does it ask any questions about Hillary Clinton’s part in making Lewinsky one of the most disliked women of the 1990s. Clinton states that she was angry at her husband, but, what specifically, was she angry about? And how does she now view her role in this particularly dark part of her history? How do the accusers feel about Hillary Clinton? No one asks.
Multiple times Clinton says she wanted to express anger but was silenced by her own team: at situations ranging from constant, fruitless questions about her emails to Trump’s hulking presence looming behind her at the 2016 presidential debates. Those exclamations are generally followed up by a testimony from a former staffer saying Clinton had been advised to calm down, to apologize. In Episode 2, after a clip of Senator Bernie Sanders asking Clinton for fashion advice, the scene cuts to present-day Clinton saying, “Honestly, Bernie just drove me crazy.” In Episode 4, Clinton speaks about the drop in her numbers just after James Comey re-opened the investigation into her emails days before the 2016 election:
“We had a big debate,” Clinton says of her campaign staffers, “because I was so angry, I was so mad about this. I said ‘I’m going to go out and blast the guy,’ and everybody was like ‘No, don’t do that, you don’t want to get into a fight with the FBI.”
What might have happened if she had simply gotten mad? There is, of course, no way to know. Instead, Hillary seems content with the explanation that she couldn’t, rather than an exploration of what may have happened if she did. And for a documentary that is presumably a case study asking whether or not a woman can ever be elected president in America, Hillary is light on scrutiny of the missteps and miscalculations over the course of Clinton’s three-decade likability makeover, offering up pressure for Clinton to change her last name, her hair, her clothes, and her speech as from society rather than her own team.
But in the case of women politicians, is the call coming from inside the house? Perhaps the imagining of what might make a woman more likable and forcing those alterations upon our female candidates is part of the problem.
When Hillary first aired on Hulu last week history seemed to be repeating itself. Elizabeth Warren had just dropped out of the Democratic primary despite being highly qualified. “How much would a woman have to change in order to become likable enough for the presidency?” would be a great question for a documentary to pose, though Hillary did not pose it.
Instead, we’re still talking about Clinton specifically, when it might be time to apply the lessons her frequent public flagellation has taught us generally. We’ve been talking about “her” since 1992. President Trump is still talking about her; in my hometown, they’re still mocking her, and until another woman gets as close to the presidency as Clinton did, her story is going to be the only post-game video we have to review in order to gear up for the next time. In Part Four of Hillary, Clinton talks about her emails, Benghazi, and all the other accusations of her wrongdoing that have ultimately come to nothing (if you don’t count the lost presidency).
“Even if something is disproved,” Clinton says, “people still remember that the allegation was made.” But perhaps the opposite is true as well. Even if the woman candidate doesn’t win the presidency, we’re under the obligation to remember that the attempt was made. And the study of why that attempt failed, not just a recreation of the failure, becomes the burden of those who hope to win in the future.
As I watched the ever-changing length and style of Clinton’s hair throughout the ’90s in the news clips featured in the documentary, I remembered the running jokes from my childhood about how Clinton kept changing her look to trick her husband into thinking she was several different women. But really, she was constantly changing and morphing to satisfy the constant stream of criticism from people who were never going to like her in the first place. I’d like to know how Hillary feels about the sacrifices she’s made in service of this sexism. Does she regret not expressing anger when she felt angry? She insists at the beginning of the documentary that “What you see is what you get,” but that simply isn’t true. What we see has been carefully shaped by society’s expectations of women along with pressure from within Clinton’s own team to make concessions to those expectations. Hillary’s audience is most likely women who are exhausted by their own attempts to satisfy the constant demand for female likeability in the name of self-preservation, while simultaneously railing against those demands. It would have been helpful for the case study of Hillary Clinton’s life and career to at least explore whether all those concessions were ultimately worth it, or even helpful.
But even Hillary seems to conclude on a note of attrition, cutting in its final moments to one of the final speeches in Clinton’s campaign, during which she apologized one last time:
“I regret deeply how angry the tone of the campaign became,” she says. In the audience, someone yells, “Not your fault,” which seems to be Hillary’s overarching point. But we already knew that. There’s no footage of Clinton from the Javitz Center in New York City awaiting the ultimately devastating election results. Clinton says no one, even the staff didn’t want it. John Podesta, chairman of the campaign remembers telling Clinton, “I think we let you down.” But once again, who is we? Campaign staff? Voters? America? Hillary never asks, and never asking makes the entire production much more of an effigy than a postmortem.