“Such a nasty woman.”
Donald Trump’s complaint, grumbled as Hillary Clinton snuck a dig at his record of taxpaying into a discussion of federal trust funds, sent a collective shudder through watchers. On social media and post-debate panels, it neared the top of the list of discussable moments, following close behind Trump’s promise to “keep you in suspense” about whether he’ll accept the result of the election.
But instead of outrage, I felt a short, sharp jolt of joy. If it had been me up on that debate stage, I would have been hard-pressed not to break out a shimmy, which is one on the extraordinarily long list of reasons Clinton has the discipline to be president and I do not. As unpleasant as Trump’s comment was, and as much as it perfectly embodies the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” strategy of his candidacy, the remark provided a perfect illustration of how constrained the limits of acceptable behavior are for women, and how vast and wide open the preserves of allowable conduct are for men, so frontier-like that Trump could wander around them hunting “bad hombres.”
And in my experience, something electric happens when a woman realizes just how constrained she is, that no matter what she does, some man, somewhere, is going to condemn her as a harpy or a hysteric.
It’s a distinct revelation from the ones that lead women to reclaim epithets as compliments, to proclaim that “b—— get stuff done” or “b—- is the new black.”
But there is a wild energy that comes from knowing that someone, somewhere will always hate you, so you might as well stop trying to win that person over. There is something hugely liberating about having spent years trying, with increasing wobbliness, to avoid stepping outside a circle of propriety that’s really too small for any person to stand in. And when you contemplate what you could do if you stopped allocating psychic energy to pleasing everyone and the places you might go once you abandon some of the more absurd restrictions you’ve abided by, that’s where the fun really starts.
In these three debates, Clinton hasn’t come remotely close to the level of invective Trump has employed: To do that, she’d have to suggest that his hair is a crime against fashion sufficient to warrant incarceration, or wander around him during a town-hall-style debate assessing his posterior before announcing her findings on stage in the middle of a rally.
But Clinton hasn’t been nice to him, either. She hasn’t been deferential. She’s hit him hard, and truthfully, on repeated occasions. She hasn’t shaken his hand. And when asked to name something she liked about him, she chose his children, a compliment that’s as much if not more to their mothers than to Trump himself.
During her time as first lady, Clinton often seemed bewildered by how people perceived her, desperate to crack some code that would allow her to be liked. President Barack Obama’s debate line about how she was “likable enough” was cutting not just because it delivered a poor verdict on those efforts but also because it mocked her desire to receive that affirmation.
If you need a barometer for how much things have changed in those two decades, let’s flash back to a 1995 lunch with what the New York Times then described as “a group of women who write about the first lady’s social functions, style, gossip and personal advice.” Clinton was forced to describe herself as “naive and dumb” about national politics after the failure of her health-care-reform efforts, and to ask for assistance on “how she could better make the public see her in the sympathetic, more complicated way in which she sees herself.”
After years of straining for approval, it was a race against Trump, a man whose good opinion isn’t worth earning, that seems to have cracked that code for Clinton. From where Trump stands, Clinton might be “such a nasty woman.” But from where I sit at home, she also seems freer than ever.