In late May of this year, the journalist Rebecca Traister published a long profile of Hillary Clinton in New York magazine. The piece, “Hillary Clinton vs. Herself,” was premised on one of the key paradoxes that has defined Clinton as a politician, as a persona, and as a person: Among the people who have known her in private, she is often regarded as genuine and caring and warm and wonderful. Among the American public, though, she is often regarded as the opposite, in almost every way. Traister concluded the profile with this observation:
It’s worth asking to what degree charisma, as we have defined it, is a masculine trait. Can a woman appeal to the country in the same way we are used to men doing it? Though those on both the right and the left moan about “woman cards,” it would be impossible, and dishonest, to not recognize gender as a central, defining, complicated, and often invisible force in this election. It is one of the factors that shaped Hillary Clinton, and it is one of the factors that shapes how we respond to her. Whatever your feelings about Clinton herself, this election raises important questions about how we define leadership in this country, how we feel about women who try to claim it, flawed though they may be.
It was an argument that reached a kind of pop-cultural fruition on Monday night, on the eve of the election that will result either in the first woman president-elect of the United States, or in a situation that will be ... the opposite, in almost every way. Samantha Bee, the comedian who has herself been the subject of a Traister profile, made the case for Clinton. And with it, she argued that the politician who may shatter the highest and strongest glass ceiling in the land may also demand a widespread reckoning with what it means to be both a woman and a leader in the United States of 2016.
It was the show that Full Frontal had been building toward, in some sense, during the long course of its highly influential inaugural season. It took all the things that have made Bee’s show remarkable—her feminism, her political savvy, her righteous anger, her status as, with little exception, the only female voice in late-night comedy—and distilled it all down to one historic event. Bee’s “Let Hillary Be Hillary”—the segment’s title is borrowed from the West Wing episode premised on the idea that politics works best when politicians are allowed to be true to their own strengths and weaknesses—argued on the one hand for Clinton qua Clinton: that she is not, in fact, the lesser of two evils, or the Democratic answer to #NeverTrump, but instead an exceptional candidate who is qualified for the presidency, via her dedicated and indeed her nerdy wonkery, in her own right.
The segment also took on Traister’s argument through a high-speed documentary version of Clinton’s life story—her early political awakening under the influence of Martin Luther King, Jr., her commencement address at Wellesley that had commenters of the time calling her “a voice of her generation,” her graduation from Yale Law School as one of 27 women in a class of 235. Bee presented an image of a woman who has long been exceptional, and who has dedicated her life to public service. She also presented a woman who has been unfairly served by the media—vilified for not changing her name to match her husband’s, for not caring enough about her looks, for being, in essence, simultaneously a woman and not woman enough.
As Bee put it: “Hillary Clinton has spent the past 40 years learning to mask her authenticity.”
And now, she argued, it’s time to celebrate—and elect—Hillary Clinton for what she is: not necessarily a swaggering speechmaker, or rousing rhetorician, or any of the things that Americans, after more than two centuries’ worth of male presidents, have come to expect of their leaders. Clinton may have, in the recent past, referred to herself as “not a natural politician”; what she meant was that she is not, according to the current standards, gifted with the same vaunted skills as her husband, or of the many other men who came before him. In many other ways, however—quieter ways, subtler ways, ways that are more stereotypically female—she is indeed a natural. According to the standards she has set for herself. “I’m not voting for Hillary Clinton, either,” Bee announced, the night before the presidential election, to those who will be directing their votes elsewhere. “I’m voting for Hillary Goddamn Brilliant Badass Queen Beyoncé Rodham.”