In the frenzy that is America's great political theater, no name has rung as long or as loud as Hillary Clinton's. And now, the woman who dares to be loved and to be hated — but never, ever anything in-between — finds herself whisked once again center stage.
As the engines of 2016 rev up, all eyes are on Hillary, whose ardent supporters and critics alike have de facto pushed her into a presidential race with little word of her own. Closely following the hype, perhaps inseparable from it, has been the media. Tuesday, CNN announced it will be producing a documentary on the former secretary of state (or senator, or first lady, take your pick); NBC has tapped Diane Lane for a four-part miniseries; James Ponsoldt is working on a feature film called Rodham.
For over 20 years, Hillary Clinton has been a relentless source of cultural fixation, a vessel for all the fears and aspirations and contradictions that underpin our uneasy, evolving understanding of "womanhood" in this new modern era. From her pantsuits to her marriage to her health care policies, we have consumed the details of her life, and — as the recent glut of Clinton biopics so strikingly point out — we are left still hungry. We seem to have reached a pinnacle of Hillary hype, a world where "Texts With Hillary" can make waves on Tumblr and where her Twitter account can get more than 360,000 followers on its first day alone.
But Hillary hype is dangerous. On a practical standpoint alone, it sets up the threat of false expectations, the kind that derailed Hillary's 2008 presidential run and could just as easily do the same for whatever prospects she has laid down the road. If those prospects do happen to include a return to politics come 2016, her approval rating — at it's peak, a forceful 64% this April, 13 points above the "likeable enough" Barack Obama — still won't cut it.
Because, really, it's easy to be liked when there's no one attacking you. And, with Hillary removed more than five years from the harsh arena of national politics, for a long time nobody has. But now, as adamant anti-Hillary organizers begin to rally super-PAC-style for 2016, that's prone to change big time. All the while the expectant onslaught of disillusionment hovers by the sidelines.
Still we can't help but love imagining Hillary, her thoughts and motives and fears and defeats. We can't stop trying to shape her narrative, inventing her and then reinventing her in the public mind — mythologies played out in sound bites, op-eds, biographies, and soon at least twice on the big screen.
But let us never forget: in 2008, when it ultimately came to the gritty reality of a national campaign, neither mythology nor hype were enough. Inevitable was a hollow word. Democrats shirked back from their own imaginative invention: a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Almost 100 years before that, Virginia Woolf, one of the most progressive women of her day, wrote of women: "Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history."
Now we are not in early twentieth century England, and Hillary Clinton is not the woman of which Virginia Woolf speaks. To mention Hillary and insignificant in the same sentence would be flagrantly untrue.
But when it comes to this final glass ceiling — our first female president — I am worried we've rendered her only a symbol, albeit a beautiful one, for the most poetic of our dreams. She's an imaginative outlet for women trying to navigate the 21st century, who seek to find a wisp of hope that, yes, we can have it all, in our own terms, on equal footing. Maybe.
And then, when it comes to the true making of history, Election Day, I am worried that in that crucial moment, anxiety will sink in: questions of competence, of coldness, or of that even worse word, bitchiness. And then, on a brisk day early November, Hillary Clinton's name will come up absent.