Feminist Fury and Journalists’ Venom: The Gendered Recriminations of 2016

It’s difficult for me to write about Hillary Clinton’s What Happened without revisiting my anger over the continuing injustice of her treatment by much of the press. Yes, there have been appreciative reviews of the book, reviews that recognize that Clinton, as Megan Garber puts it, “is doing the thing so many women politicians and citizens have done, recently, in a world that refuses to make space for them: It reclaims.” In doing so, it inaugurates “a newly emotional style of political engagement”—but without sacrificing the factual, as some other politicians have done. Yes, it’s a candid, warm, and sometimes angry account of Clinton’s experience; it’s also an astute, multifaceted analysis of the “perfect storm” that resulted in the disaster of 2016.[1]

The unvarnished malice of the negative reviews, however, makes it difficult to avoid the conclusion that many responses to the book are an extension of the same desire to castigate Hillary that pundits brought to their reporting of the campaign. The book is “useless” (Sam Kriss) and “essentially wrong-headed” (Sarah Leonard); it’s like “Hillary cornering you in a coffee shop, replaying the game tape.” And of course, there’s the “blames everyone but herself” theme, with which we’ve been bludgeoned since the night of the election. (It’s especially annoying coming from Jonathan Allen, coauthor of Shattered, a book that basically ignores everything except Clinton’s failings.)

Reviewers’ scorn for Clinton’s emotional and intellectual candor in What Happened is partly a reflection of the current fashion to obscure one’s point of view inside a thicket of cool, seemingly balanced journalese. Disclosing one’s argument—indeed, presenting an argument rather than a series of arch observations and witty takedowns—is viewed as biased. The irony: much of the nastiest journalism is seen as objective, when really, it’s just slicker in disguising its venom.

A lot of the snideness in the reviews of What Happened is gendered, too. I’ve never seen so much kvetching about the length of a memoir (which, by the way, is approximately the same length as Bernie Sanders’s Our Revolution). One reviewer even admitted that he only “skimmed” the book (which didn’t stop him from writing a particularly mean-spirited review of its “blind spots”). I guess we are only permitted a properly feminine allotment of space—and we shouldn’t spend too much of it complaining.

And there’s such yawning condescension toward the domestic, female-centered details in the book: the “endless takes of her encounters with wise old biddies in coffee bars” (Craig Brown), the “interminable” passages about friends and aides. Joanna Weiss oozes scorn for the descriptions of “what she eats for breakfast and how much she hydrates,” reserving particular sarcasm for Clinton’s alternative breathing Yoga practice. The book is described by Sarah Leonard as “gossipy” and “mean” (and, in an otherwise positive assessment, Kirkus Reviews says the book needs “supplementing by hard-edged books” like Shattered—a far more gossipy book). But at the same time, Danielle Kurtzleben complains in NPR Now that Clinton leaves out juicy details like “what did [she] say (or scream) when she found out her husband had met with the attorney general on an airport tarmac?”

We’ve all been watching the news; it’s more apparent all the time that Clinton’s account of the external forces that plagued her candidacy is correct. Yet Weiss, while admitting that “nothing [Hillary] complains about” in the book “is untrue,” goes on to berate her for having “no true sense of reflection” concerning her own responsibility.

Weiss is not only contradictory here; she is also disingenuous. The problem for the “blames everything except herself” folks isn’t Hillary’s analysis, it’s Hillary’s attitude: they want her to efface her own knowledge in the service of being properly humble, to have less conviction of her own competence, to beg forgiveness for her sins.

Would we expect the same from a man who lost an election? We certainly didn’t from Sanders’s Our Revolution, published a week after the election, in which Sanders claims that “the Clinton campaign may not have liked it. The Democratic establishment may not have liked it. But it was becoming increasingly clear that I was the strongest candidate if Democrats were to retain the White House” (167). That’s his analysis of the Democratic loss. Has anyone railed against his hubris, his failure to reflect on his responsibility?

Yes: I’m furious. And I probably will be until history does justice to Hillary Clinton. In What Happened she has the temerity to reclaim the narrative of 2016; someday, I have to believe, the rest of us will catch up.

[1] I use the metaphor of the “perfect storm” in The Destruction of Hillary Clinton (78), and Clinton also uses the metaphor in What Happened.