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This past week, Hillary Clinton enjoyed a historic achievement by becoming the first woman to be nominated for president by one of America's two major political parties. Yet her candidacy has been perpetually hamstrung by how she is personally perceived by the public.
Clinton's disapproval ratings, despite a solid post-convention pump, have remained mired in the 50% range throughout much of the 2016 race, and she has consistently been dinged by both critics, and even allies, for being too controlled and rehearsed as a candidate.
Writer Sady Doyle, author of the upcoming book "Trainwreck: The Women We Love to Hate, Mock and Fear ... and Why," believes you can trace the public's antipathy towards Clinton back even further to one infamous moment — her assertion that she could have "stayed home and baked cookies" but instead chose to pursue her career during her husband Bill Clinton's 1992 campaign for the White House.
The remark ignited a huge backlash that seems wildly disproportionate in retrospect. There were T-shirts, jokes, cartoons and other paraphernalia all dedicated to the would-be first lady's lust for power. The Clintons' marriage became a source of intense speculation, with some suggesting it was a loveless union of convenience to advance her career. Others believed that she must be a closeted lesbian. There was even an entire "Nightline" segment devoted to dissecting her off-the-cuff comment.
In a sense, she has spent much of the last two decades making up for it.
"Every moment Hillary Clinton is in front of me, I think she is thinking about how not to make me angry, and she is somehow making everyone around me angry by doing that," Doyle told NBC News this week. "What Hillary proves is that you can do ‘everything right’ and that’s still going to be wrong."
For years now Doyle has been fascinated by who gets to define what kind of behavior is right or wrong for women, especially through the lens of media. She's deduced that for centuries now, women in the public eye must always risk being caricatured as hysterical whenever they dare to show that they are human.
That dichotomy may be most prominently on display in the world of pop culture, where the industry of celebrity gossip is powered in part by the deification and then the inevitable denigration of female stars. While, on the surface, Clinton may not have much in common with the likes of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, despite all her accomplishments, she is arguably subjected to the same double standard of scrutiny.
"We are constantly in touch with these women and constantly looking at them," she said. "You look at someone for 24 hours a day, you’re going to see them do something embarrassing."
In the last decade, the rise of blogs, gossip sites and social media has coincided with an increasingly hostile tone of celebrity coverage that can be a cathartic guilty pleasure, but can also be cruel to people who have genuine personality problems. Doyle sites the late Whitney Houston's widely mocked "crack is whack" interview with Diane Sawyer in 2002 as an early example. It quickly became a popular Internet meme, but in the aftermath of her drug-related death ten years later, the footage no longer feels funny to Doyle anymore.
"We can look at that and find a way to be a little bit kinder about the pressure of being female in a sexist society," she said. "We can also objectify it and use someone’s suffering as a way to make ourselves feel better about the fact that we haven’t screwed up quite that badly today."
"For women in particular, we’re so conditioned to think about ourselves in terms of whether or not people like us, that looking at a woman that nobody likes and saying well at least I didn’t do that can take some of the pressure off," she added. "It’s understandable but it can also contribute to an overarching culture of humiliation ... as a way to keep women cognizant of their own behavior."
Take Britney Spears' widely panned 2007 performance at the MTV Video Music Awards, for instance. The singer was raked over the coals for her somewhat listless demeanor, and mercilessly attacked for the state of her body, despite the fact that she recently had two children.
"Britney is a product of her moment, and there was so much uncomfortable intimacy with her," said Doyle. "I remember spending weeks talking about that performance at the time and I watched it [again recently] and she just looks tired. It's not actually the disaster that I remember."
Yet coming on the heels of her widely publicized head-shaving "meltdown," she came to personify the public's concept of the "trainwreck" celebrity — which can include surreptitious crotch shots, stints in rehab, sex tapes and seemingly doomed-from-the-start marriages. But is their behavior entirely a product of personal transgressions or an inevitable result of the our culture's relentless need to feed off the famous?
By the time that pop star Miley Cyrus arrived on the national stage as young teen, there was almost an expectation she would eventually be exploited with nude photos or a sex tape. When she eventually did wholeheartedly embrace an overtly sexual image, concern rapidly evolved into contempt for the former Disney darling.
"These are really sort of proxy wars," said Doyle. "We have a long public discussion about how women should behave, and what women should look like, and what their personality should be like. And when you are exposed to that every day of your life, you cannot help but internalize that it is OK to dehumanize or sexually exploit or even laugh at the illness or death of a woman because you don't think she's nice, or you don't think she behaves the way you think she should."
The "trainwreck" aesthetic has even to some degree inspired a sub-genre of Hollywood comedies — films that feature "bad girls" who are labeled that way because in some cases they engage in stereotypically masculine behavior for comic effect.
The surprise hit "Bridesmaids" was perhaps the opening salvo, and it's been followed by a series of profitable titles like "Bad Teacher," "Mike and Dave Need Wedding Dates," and yes, "Trainwreck." The latest example is "Bad Moms," which opened this past weekend, and much of its humor appears to be derived from the notion that, yes, mothers can also drink and party. While all of these films may include nods to conformity that are problematic, Doyle believes the very existence of each is encouraging.
"There's this weird Victorian hangover where we still think of women as these angelic moral guardians, and for the longest time in a comedy, that was the only role you could play," she said. "You were picking up some sad sack and helping him get over his ex-girlfriend, or you were just the girlfriend that already existed and stood there while guys were having fun and wagged your finger."
"In a way comedy is the place we can talk about stuff that embarrasses us without having to feel too bad about it and letting women be messes in comedy is almost a safer way of dealing with the fact that women can be messes at all," she added. The issue that Hollywood is still grappling with, Doyle argues, is that "once we've admitted that women are human beings with flaws — what are we going to do about that?"
The country is facing that existential question with regard to a much more high-stakes decision, the presidential election. During her Democratic nomination acceptance speech, Hillary Clinton tried to artfully sell herself as both imperfect and resolute. And her at times defensive crouch belied the reality that, for better or worse, whether voters "like" her may mean more than her qualifications come November.