Photo Credits: HBO, Netflix, Gage Skidmore

Why Don't We Like Real "Unlikable" Women?

We're forgiving of Selina Meyer's narcissistic incompetence on "Veep" and Claire Underwood's manipulative ways on "House of Cards." So why are we so hard on Hillary Clinton?
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“I’m fluent in Bastard. It’s one of my languages,” Selina Meyer, the title character in HBO’s Veep, states unapologetically. A politician who considers the slogan, “Get the government out of my snatch!” as part of her platform on abortion, hurls decidedly offensive insults and refers to her constituents as the “mouth-breathing citizenry of the United States,” Meyer is many things, but she is decidedly not a woman one would consider “likable.” And yet Veep is one of the most popular comedies on TV, and its star, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, has won an Emmy for every year since the show has been on the air.

Meyer shares the small screen with Claire Underwood, the steely-eyed, ambitious First Lady on Netflix’s House of Cards. Willing to employ manipulation and blackmail to achieve her goals, Claire, who could hardly be described as likable, has earned Robin Wright one Emmy nomination per season and a Golden Globe for her performance on the critically acclaimed series.

While the popularity of Veep and House of Cards has been encouraging for many who hope for more complex female characters on TV, it also painted a clear picture of a societal double standard and begs the question of why audiences will tune in to watch these women onscreen but refuse to respect, support, or even acknowledge them as equals in real life?

The prime example of this disparity is the 2016 presidential election, which has pitted a fiercely intelligent and ambitious woman against a racist, misogynist, xenophobic and incompetent male opponent who has been proven to lie once every three minutes and was just exposed as a proponent and possible perpetrator of rape culture and sexual assault. The gap in qualifications between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump has been apparent since even before they secured their parties’ respective nominations for president of the United States.

Clinton had not even announced her candidacy when the pundits began debating whether she was “likable” enough to win the election. (Type “Hillary Clinton” and “unlikable” into any search engine and you’ll find countless think pieces on the subject—most, though not all, of them written by men.) And throughout her campaign, Clinton’s smile, laugh, overall personality, and perceived “likability” have garnered as many headlines as her accomplishments, platform, or policies.

The media’s narrative of Clinton has constantly questioned her likability and lamented her approval ratings, but the latter have not always been low. In fact, they soared to 64 percent after she stood by her husband following the Monica Lewinsky scandal. It was when she ran for the Senate in 2000 that they fell to 49 percent before rebounding to 60 percent when she entered office. She was an extremely popular secretary of State, with a 66 percent approval rating. In March 2015—one month before she announced her candidacy—she held a 50 percent approval rating.

But Clinton’s approval ratings have decreased sharply from her tenure as secretary of State, when she reported to a man, and focused her attention on her campaign to be the country’s Commander in Chief. So viewers and voters are willing to support a strong woman—as long as she’s second-in-command, serving a man’s ambition and not her own. And one year into her own campaign, Clinton, an accomplished and experienced politician, was tying in “unpopularity” with Trump, an arrogant man who feasts on hatred, is known for failed business deals, attacking women for their appearance and referring to immigrants as drug dealers and rapists. On June 16, 70 percent of Americans had an unfavorable opinion of Trump, and an ABC News/Washington Post poll reported 56 percent of respondents with a “strongly unfavorable” opinion of Trump, while only 15 percent had a favorable opinion.

Apparently, all it takes for an accomplished woman with a track record of fighting for the underserved in her country to be equated with a demagogue with a string of bankruptcies and no political experience, is for her to seek a position of leadership and power—in the real world, at least.

But on TV, Americans eat it up. Selina Meyer may be unlikable—stubborn, ambitious, and narcissistic—but she believes she’s trying to do a good job, even if her actions are motivated by her ego. And her ineptitude is absolutely entertaining, so her pratfalls—whether she is publicly humiliating herself or simply shouting obscenities at her staff—have a way of humanizing her. But many people are unable or unwilling to view Clinton in the same light—people were outraged, for example, when she didn’t immediately disclose the fact that she had pneumonia, a level of outrage more appropriate for her opponent’s hatred-stoking speeches. Clinton’s persona of professional self-preservation renders any mistakes impermissible in the eyes of her opponents.

As the power-hungry wife of a politician, Claire Underwood resembles Hillary Clinton in more ways than one. House of Cards is popular among middle-aged women, many of whom might relate to Claire. Perhaps these baby boomers didn’t pursue their own careers, choosing to focus on marriage and children, and they tune in to watch Claire achieve what they never could—determinedly strive for success, public acclaim and professional fulfillment. But watching this on TV is safe; actually casting one’s vote to give her power over country is quite another.

According to a Pew Research Center poll, 36 percent of Americans found Clinton “hard to like.” In August 2015, a poll conducted by the ABC News/Washington Post showed that 56 percent of Americans had an unfavorable impression of Clinton, with 41 percent reporting a favorable one, setting the record for the worst image Clinton held in her public life.

Criticisms of Clinton include her lacking in morals, changing positions when it’s politically convenient, hiding her true personality behind a hard, defensive shell of policy and legal jargon, and the overall notion of “corruption.” These are presented in sharp contrast to her opponent, who is praised by his fans praise for “saying it like it is” and who recently made headlines for his 3 a.m. tweets accusing a woman of having made a sex tape.

But New York Times op-ed columnist David Brooks has devoted entire articles not to Trump and his likability, but to Hillary Clinton. In May, he pontificaed on the value of knowing what the former senator and secretary of State does for fun in his ridiculous op-ed, he “Why Is Clinton Disliked?” The answer, according to Brooks, is because she's a workaholic lacking relatable hobbies.

“People who work closely with her adore her and say she is warm and caring,” he wrote. “But it’s hard from the outside to think of any non-career or pre-career aspect to her life. Except for a few grandma references, she presents herself as a résumé and policy brief … Clinton’s unpopularity is akin to the unpopularity of a workaholic … So of course to many she seems Machiavellian, crafty, power-oriented, untrustworthy.”

Brooks opined again in an August op-ed, discussing Clinton’s perceived public image and the importance of “gracious leadership”: “There’s often a whiff of inhumanity about her campaign that inspires distrust. So I’ve been thinking that it’s not enough to be experienced. The people in public life we really admire turn experience into graciousness.”

Going on to stress the importance of “humbling agents,” Brooks said, “Mistakes just have to be made … Gracious people are humble enough to observe that the best things in life are usually undeserved.” He thinks that “great leaders” “turn awareness of their own frailty into sympathy for others’ frailty.”

Brooks appeared to be ignoring—or ignorant of—Clinton’s decades of work for the “frail” people in American society, such as working to start a legal aid program in 1976, co-sponsoring the National Affordable Housing Trust Fund Act, chairing the Legal Services Corporation to ensure free legal aid and, as part of her current platform, raising the minimum wage and working to make college affordable for all Americans.

But, he wrote, “Sooner or later life teaches you that you’re not the center of the universe, nor quite as talented or good as you thought. It teaches you to care less about what others think and, less self-conscious, to get out of your own way.

Despite her history, despite her qualifications and despite the glaring disparity in her background and her opponent’s, Clinton’s perceived “likability” has continued to be a topic of discussion throughout her campaign. She has attempted to present herself as accessible and authentic, impersonating Donald Trump with Jimmy Fallon and dancing the Nae Nae with Ellen DeGeneres. But these attempts to soften her public image and present herself as “likable” – which also include playing a bartender to Kate McKinnon’s impression of her on Saturday Night Live, participating on “Between Two Ferns” with Zach Galafianakis or making a cameo on Broad City—she’s called shrewd and calculating. (Comments on YouTube for her SNL skit included, “They should've had her peel off her humanoid skin and come out in her reptilian skin just for laughs” and “Wow! Hillary Clinton can actually ACT! HOW exciting! That explains why she’s such a good liar! Thank you!”)

This hatred of Hillary Clinton, continues to drive the narrative of the campaign, with some passionately swearing they will never vote for her, opting for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein or Gary "What is Aleppo?" Johnson, or writing in Senator Bernie Sanders’s name, or refusing to vote at all. The online petition at wontvotehillary.com had 135,693 total signatures as of October 9.

When asked to explain their opposition to Clinton, people often cite her deep ties with the Democratic establishment, her supposed history of lies, the Benghazi scandal and her emails. She’s considered too prepared for public speaking, almost robotic. She’s too Democratic, or she’s not Democratic enough. She’s not warm or personable or human enough. The negative reaction to Clinton is not credited just to her career, her history and her actions; it is also driven by her personality and even her appearance. Many have shared that they simply do not want to watch her on TV for the next four or eight years.

Throughout the primaries, Clinton came up short with white male voters, many of whom swear they aren’t sexist. Many have said they have nothing against women, but they don’t want a woman in charge right now. Or they don’t want this woman. But, they insist, they are not sexist.

Even following her first debate against Donald Trump, in which Clinton secured a clear victory over Trump, her “likability problem” has continued to plague her. And on the fifth season finale of Veep, Selina Meyer, who had risen from vice president to president, was unemployed. But with Claire Underwood currently on the ticket to be vice president on the upcoming season of House of Cards, a change might be in the future—at least on TV.

 
Carey Purcell is a New York–based writer, reporter, and theater critic. She has been published in The New Yorker, The Nation, PEOPLE, Playbill, American Theatre magazine, Elle, Bust, Alternet, Jezebel, and Howlround.com.
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