What Chelsea Clinton Teaches Us About Persistent Sexism

A local columnist for the Joplin Globe once wrote this stunning paragraph, which I have posted before:

On the investigative side, it has been learned by this reporter that quality of education, safety, or class arrogance had nothing to do with Mr. and Mrs. Clinton’s decision to enroll their daughter Chelsea in a private school. An informed source has confirmed that the real reason, was the school’s policy of allowing no mirrors on campus. Apparently, Hillary felt it would be too traumatic at such a tender age to allow her little bundle of joy to see just how ugly she really is. In a private statement Mrs. Clinton was heard to vow that she would keep Chelsea away from all mirrors until such time as she could handle the emotional stress of facing the fact she was her mother’s daughter.

Image result for chelsea clintonAt that time, 1994, Chelsea Clinton was fourteen years old. And the classlessness of that writer has only grown over the years, which, I suppose, is what makes him a perfect columnist for a newspaper in this Clinton-hating geographical area.

Just recently, another right-wing writer, writing for the once renowned National Review, published a post about a grown-up Chelsea Clinton, in a piece thoughtfully titled “Little Creep,” a piece that began with this line: “Hasn’t Bill Clinton been fellated thoroughly enough?” More classlessness, obviously. The piece was, like that of our local columnist, not just a shot at Chelsea Clinton, but a shot at her mother, “the Big Creep.” There’s something about the Clintons, especially the Clinton women, that drive conservatives to write things like our local columnist wrote and things like that nationally-known columnist wrote:

Chelsea Clinton, most recently lionized on the cover of Variety, is a 37-year-old multi-millionaire who has never uttered an interesting word about any subject at any time during the course of her life. Judging from the evidence of her public statements, she has never had an original thought — it isn’t clear that she has had a thought at all. In tribute to her parents, she was given a series of lucrative sinecures, producing a smattering of sophomoric videos for NBC at a salary of $600,000 a year. She later went more formally into the family business, leaving her fake job at NBC for a fake job in her parents’ fake charity. She gave interviews about how she just couldn’t get interested in money and bought a $10 million Manhattan apartment that stretches for the better part of a city block.

That’s just another way, a snootier way using a phrase like “lucrative sinecures,” of calling Chelsea “ugly.” The writer ends his tasteless piece with this:

Have a little self-respect, Democrats. Build Bill Clinton a statue or . . . whatever. Send him your daughters like a bunch of bone-in-the-nose primitives paying tribute to the tribal chieftain. But stop trying to inflict this empty-headed, grasping, sanctimonious, risible, simpering, saccharine little twerp on American public life.

It’s stupid enough out there.

A few days ago, Jill Filipovic, writing for Cosmopolitan, published a piece (“How Dare Chelsea Clinton, a Well-Educated, Accomplished Woman, Share Her Opinions”) that essentially is a response to this hate-filled fascination with the Clinton women, even if the critiques are sometimes hidden behind hatred for Bill. She wrote:

The Chelsea hate-fest isn’t new, but like a disturbing proportion of the critiques of her mother, Hillary Clinton, the case against Chelsea is conspicuously wrapped up in sexism. She was mocked mercilessly as a teenager, savaged for her looks and adolescent awkwardness on comedy shows and in right-wing media. Now, the idea that she tweets regularly, talks in public, and weighs in on political issues, like her recent advocacy for equal pay, is apparently enraging for some men — the fact that she talks about herself is outrageous enough, but what seems to really disturb the pundit class is that she does it in a way that they think signals political ambitions.

Filipovic acknowledges the obvious, that “Chelsea is a child of immense privilege,” that “politics is the family business.” But she offers us a solid reason for the “preemptive smack down” of the Clinton’s daughter:

Perhaps it’s because Chelsea won’t shut up and go away — because she has the gall to believe that she, a bright young woman with a PhD in international relations and a master’s in public health, and who was raised on a steady diet of politics and civic duty, and has had an inside look at campaigning and even the White House, might have something to say.

One has to admit that a great deal of the obnoxious conservative-based criticism of the adult Chelsea has to do with the legacy of her parents. But there is a lot of truth to the claim that many of the harsh barbs thrown Chelsea’s way have to do with visceral sexism. And those sexist barbs don’t just come from the right. Filipovic references lefty writer T. A. Frank, who wrote about Chelsea for Vanity Fair. Filipovic wrote:

What seems to rub mostly male pundits the wrong way is that Chelsea is perceived as bragging when she talks about herself, by saying, for example, that she wrote a letter to President Ronald Reagan when she was 5, or that “They told me that my father had learned to read when he was three. So, of course, I thought I had to too. The first thing I learned to read was the newspaper.” I read this and see a cute story; T. A. Frank, who wrote the Vanity Fair hit piece, sees this as “self-regard of an unusual intensity.”

That quote from the Vanity Fair hit piece (“PLEASE, GOD, STOP CHELSEA CLINTON FROM WHATEVER SHE IS DOING”) goes like this:

What comes across with Chelsea, for lack of a gentler word, is self-regard of an unusual intensity. And the effect is stronger on paper. Unkind as it is to say, reading anything by Chelsea Clinton—tweets, interviews, books—is best compared to taking in spoonfuls of plain oatmeal that, periodically, conceal a toenail clipping. […]

At first glance, of course, Chelsea seems to be boasting that at age five she was interpreting the news with the maturity of an adult. But we should consider whether it’s instead a confession that as an adult she still interprets the news with the maturity of—well, let’s just submit that perhaps she thinks what other people tell her to think.

Jill Filipovic observes:

Women are notoriously hesitant to speak about their accomplishments lest they be perceived as bragging; women who do talk about their accomplishments, then, break gender norms and are perceived poorly for it. It’s the same dynamic that ends up penalizing women who try to negotiate but rewards men for the same: When men act aggressively, ask for more, or toot their own horns, we see them as capable, assertive, professional, and going after what they deserve. When women do it, we’re seen as bitchy, unlikable braggarts. […]

Our leaders are mostly male, and the people who talk, write, and pontificate about our leaders are mostly male. When women do manage to shine in this system — to gain political popularity, to ascend the professional ranks — there are too often many people who take offense at such raw and unfeminine ambition, and want to see them dimmed and quieted.

Just today, Tr-mp, speaking before the testosteronic NRA, once again referred to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.” That’s Tr-mp’s buffoonish way of dimming her, of quieting her, of calling her “ugly.” And, unfortunately, such behavior is not just limited to classless creeps like Tr-mp or nasty local right-wing columnists or venomous big-time writers for well-known conservative websites. We have a long way to go here in 21st-century America, in terms of seeing smart, strong women as simply smart, strong people.

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6 Comments

  1. Your post is absolutely on target, Duane. I grew up in a family of five kids – me (the oldest) and four sisters. Even as a 12-year-old, I could see that I received preferential treatment. Of course, at the time, I just enjoyed it even while feeling guilty about it. Now, my wife and I (second marriage for both) have three daughters and two sons.

    I have seen incredible sexism in the workplace, and what makes it even more incredible is that those engaging in the sexism (both men and women) usually did not even realize they did it. I am trying hard to expunge sexist thoughts and language from my personal life, but I need assistance from the females in my life, because I, too, do not notice it from time to time. Racism is much the same, I think; until you have expereinced it, I don’t see how you can truly understand it. As a USN white male in Japan in the 70’s, I experienced a tiny, tiny bit of what African Americans must experience in abundance every day in th USA. One of my shipmates is 6’3″ and had very red hair and a bushy red moustache. The Japanese would stop in the street and point at him and laugh out loud. It got him drinks in the local bars, though.

    Humans are endlessly fascinating and endlessly insensitive. We do seem to be getting incrementally better, though, I think. I hope we survive long enough as a species to be the best we can be.

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    • Michael,

      Your family experience is interesting. That didn’t happen in my family of three boys and two girls. I never noticed any different treatment among us, except for maybe my baby sister getting some preferential treatment now and then from her momma.

      As for the workplace, I guess I had a different experience there, too. I essentially worked in a government workplace where, for the most part, everyone was treated the same way, which was probably mostly due to our union contract, which did not allow any preferential treatment and had clear non-discrimination provisions that we, as a union, aggressively enforced.

      That is a fascinating story about your tall red-headed shipmate, especially how he parlayed that discrimination into free booze! And I do agree with you that, although sometimes it is hard to see, we are slowly getting better.

      Interestingly, your comment about surviving long enough to be the best we can be, came just after I heard a podcast recently involving AI and how it might be possible in a generation or two to upload the information in our brains to a machine that may or may not then become “conscious” the way we think we are. Your comment made me wonder just how such machines, or any machine with AI, would treat others not exactly like them. Yes, humans are endlessly fascinating. And so might be the machines they create in the future, or the machines those machines create in the future. Just wish I could be around to see how it all comes out.

      Duane

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  2. As the father of 4 girls – all grown-up, married women now – I shudder at the unfortunate accuracy of this post. The lifestyles of Trump, O’Reilly, Ailes, Bentley, Hannity, et al are just the caricatures of the “All-American right wing male attitude” in the US. Stupid white males of primarily the Greatest Generation and the Baby Boomers have been well enabled by commentary from Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, Mike Huckabee and other classless writers on the right. Age and the dying off the culturally disgusting might help fix this, but certainly the elevation of smarmy slob like Tr-mp to the office of President doesn’t help.
    The reality is that although politics doesn’t determine all social mores, the inner circle of Trump’s administration and the balance of the SCOTUS is so crassly misogynistic as to give cover to the verbal, editorial and emotional abuse of women — especially strong women — for the near future.
    I am grateful that my daughters are smart, tough, fearless and resourceful, but even with those traits they have had to battle for their place beyond each’s relationship with enlightened and loving husbands.
    I cannot imagine Chelsea ever running for office — knowing what she knows. Having been hammered by cowards and fools for 15 years. The makeup of Congress would attest to the fact that fewer and fewer of the best and the brightest aspire to public service anymore. Most of the people (the press) who are tasked with informing the populace of what is going on with government are craven idiots. Who wants to climb into that burning building?

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    • I appreciate this response. My one daughter is a strong feminist and wouldn’t put up for a second with the kind of things that so many women at Fox endured. Even nutty right-wing females at Fox deserve to come to work and not get harassed by assholes like Ailes or O’Reilly. I hope you’re right that these “culturally disgusting” attitudes will pass away when the Limbaughs and Robertsons, etc., pass away. Things do look encouraging on that front.

      As for Chelsea and a political future, I think it is utterly unfair that she is, essentially, banned from seeking office because of who her parents are. And it’s not just people on the right who give her shit. I have seen critical things said about her from people on the left, who talk all that “dynasty” nonsense. She should be judged, like anyone else, on the quality of her analysis of events, the positions she takes, and the way she conducts herself. If she has nothing good to offer, so be it. If she does, we all should listen. 

      Duane

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  3. I would like to see her take a swing at in few years — and Michelle Obama, as well.

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  4. King Beauregard

     /  May 3, 2017

    Eh, women are always complaining about something or other. Can’t we get away from this distracting “identity politics” noise and address issues that actually matter?

    (Now those of you with beloved daughters know how it sounds to me, whenever any alleged “progressive” speaks dismissively of “identity politics”. I.e., a colossal self-centered asshole.)

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