Sunday, March 9, 2008

News Analysis: 60 Minutes, Hillary Clinton, US Weekly and Gender Stereotypes

Although these 60 Minutes interviews aired a month ago, and much has changed, I feel the criticisms and observations I’ve recorded still stand. I’ve updated and edited various versions of this since that time, more because of time restraints than anything else. The segments are solid pieces, very well-written, but look at the stark differences in terms of style of questioning, arrangement of questions, what they discussed.

60 Minutes aired the Obama interview first, then after the commercial break came Hillary. Notice the differences, in approach, in style:

Obama’s video:


Now watch Hillary:


They’re both excellent interviews, no doubt. There's no coincidence that Katie Couric is the one interviewing Hillary, and the 60 Minutes newsman Steve Kroft has Barack. Katie Couric--with all the criticism of her Evening News broadcast, her soft Today Show background--is going to be asking "the tough questions" of the female presidential candidate. It's a perfect meld: Katie gets to be serious, yet show off her gentleness, how at ease she can be, and Hillary can indulge them.

Both interviewers ask good questions, often touching on similar topics, and both candidates do shill out a bit their lines. But notice: while Kroft ends the interview with the “How do you do it?” question, Couric begins her interview that way. While both interviewers aren’t antagonistic, and are usually very friendly, Couric affects camaraderie right away: She brings up her troubles, the fact that she could very well lose the nomination, starting the interview off negatively, though with a pressing question. Yet Hillary answers positively, that she believes in what she’s doing, telling herself, essentially, that she can do it. It’s all very touchy-feeling women’s magazine-y. Katie interrupts her: “You never think, oh I’m so tired, I’m so exhausted, I’m spending so much money, wouldn’t it be easier to hang it all up?”

It’s such a bonding moment, yet it’s a question I’m sure many are wondering. “Katie, you can’t think like that, you have to believe you’re going to win, otherwise leave the field and let someone who has the confidence and the optimism and the determination that a leader has to have get on the field and stay,” Hillary responds with iron-strong conviction. However, as much as it is easy to mock Hillary Clinton's women's magazine-self-help strong-woman mantra of "I believe I can", she's got a point. There's no way--and this goes for anyone undertaking such a massive effort--that you can do something so huge, so completely taxing on every possible facet of your life, without believing in what you are doing. It’s impossible. You have to believe that you can effect change, that you can succeed. That will (and her money) must be strong. Yet that line, especially in this context, does come across as a little pandering, self-serving, haughty, even. To some people it sounds patronizing. Would it come across that way if Barack Obama said it, if a male candidate said it? Probably not; it wouldn’t have that ring of cynicism that plagues her.

Watch their faces during this interaction. Katie Couric really wants to know how Hillary does it, and Hillary, true to her gender and her persona, gives details, techniques: hot peppers, water, no diet soda, washing her hands to stay healthy. Details are what women want to know. We marvel at those who somehow have it all, get it all done, and Hillary fits perfectly into that. It’s why her “crying moment” before New Hampshire worked for many women voters.

Katie also asks if Hillary likes Barack Obama. Hillary’s whole spiel–she helped campaign for him, there’s a picture of him in her office, yada yada yada–is inconsequential. What’s the point? Is Katie trying to get Hillary to crack, to prove there is more than a scintilla of bad blood between them, trying to form wedges? Isn’t that what people accuse women of doing all the time, holding onto grudges and forming new ones, to prove that Hillary’s full of hate? Notice Steve Kroft didn’t ask Obama his opinion of Hillary. Why does this matter? Presidential candidates have been known to pick running mates based on electability, not on their personal opinion. Hillary’s answers are all pat, pandering responses that deserve eye-rolling–yeah, we all waited on bated breath for the day where a white woman would run against a black man for president. She is right, though, in that this election is both about what they represent and who they are, more so than any other election. I question whether Obama’s ever had a negative ad run against him. He did run for Congress; senate races do have attack ads. Hell, even my local mayoral election had some nasty (yet clever) flyers sent out.

Look at Katie’s face when she asks, teasingly, if Hillary “couldn’t handle it”. She’s egging her on. Couric also asks about media treatment compared to Obama, and—this is before the “whining” in the Ohio debate—she acknowledges it, but says it’s ok. It has to be ok. If it’s not, she’s got a grudge, a vendetta, and even if that’s true, she can’t let everybody know it. It must not be verified.

Katie also goes into Hillary’s personal history. “Weren’t you the girl who sat in the front row who took copious notes and always raised her hand?” “Well, not always...” C’mon, Katie, weren’t you that type of girl too? They giggle, sharing a laugh about high school boys (it is pretty funny). It’s all designed—much like the entire segment—to show Hillary as human, feminine, to appeal to women voters, her base. I want to ask if it’s really necessary, but that’s a moot question. It’s what you do, and she’s been just as “aggressive” and “manly” in some of her tactics as commented on in the press. It doesn’t matter—you do what you need to do to win.

She doesn’t just do this on television. In this multifaceted media world, you have to hit every possible target, so why not do a spread in US Weekly? Here, she’s embarrassingly over-the-top and garishly girlish and giggly—exactly what this trashy mag is. She's trying to be "relatable", for all those young and middle-aged and bored women who like to thumb through those celebrity digs. It's downmarket Hillary. Look at those exclamation marks! Because it’s too elitist to be in a Vogue spread, since only Coasters read that magazine, and they’re going for Obama anyway. Downtrodden middle-class middle-American voters, that’s who she needs!

But since then, in order to be fair (and because an US Weekly staffer is an Obama fan), the other Democratic hopeful had his spotlight in this great tabloid. His though is cute, People-magazine friendly, with shots of his family and lots of kids, including himself as a lil tyke. Aww. It’s not embarrassing; it’s the male version of “He’s Just Like Us!” the popular feature where famous people are shown doing everyday things. Although one can argue that because Hillary’s been in the public eye longer than Barack has, it’s a better feature to show her atrocious outfits, especially because she’s a woman of power; she should know better. But instead, even with the ridiculous prose and tone of the entire publication dumbing them down, Hillary’s piece comes off as voyeuristic; it’s time to shake our heads and cluck-cluck at her stupidity. It can be relatable, but not in the Oprah way. Barack’s piece, despite him doing “normal” things, isn’t voyeuristic at all; it’s classy. It’s sweet, it’s what Life magazine would do if Life still existed or if he was running decades ago.

It's hard to be humble and confident, especially in politics. No one can be everything to everybody, but a presidential candidate's got to try. For those who accuse me of following the election based on identity politics, there were many times during this interview where I cringed a little. Hillary, like many driven, hard-charging women, comes across a little too earnest, and that turns a lot of people off. Earnestness is vulnerability mixed with passion; you see this trait when people get on their high horse over some issue important to them.

Is the analysis unfair? I’ve been pretty harsh towards both Katie Couric and Hillary Clinton. I don’t have a particular bias against either one of them; some people might call me a fan or apologist for them because of things I’ve said in the past. But I’m struck by the different tactics used in the interviews and by US Weekly. Their agendas were similar; both interviewers were gentle, and the spreads only served as another extension of coverage, reaching to people who may not be politically aware. In the interview, both Obama and Clinton gave excellent answers; I particularly liked Obama’s example of Google as a company that hasn’t been around long but that runs excellently. He has a point–but I also think that experience does go hand in hand with longevity/age, for lack of a better word–it’s why young people have such a hard time finding jobs and such.

But what might be one of the most telling moments in the entire segment is the ending: Says Hillary, “I have a clear sense that things will work out the way they work out. I will be fine.” It’s the quintessential ending for a female-centered story. After all, that’s how Sex and the City ended, with Carrie saying she’ll be fine, and that it’ll be just fabulous. I can just hear Hillary saying the same thing.

1 comment:

Emily said...

You know I always love a real life application of Sex and the City!