Saturday, January 19, 2008

Scared of Her Own Shadow

  • I've linked this story below, but I'm linking it here again, and have had a couple of days to think it over.  In a nutshell, Hillary Clinton was going to do a Vogue interview with Julia Reed and pictures by Annie Liebovitz, but pulled out at the last second, apparently because she was concerned that she would appear too ... feminine?  Alluring?  Who knows.  But not only did this not remain inside-baseball, Anna Wintour decided to feature the flap in her editor's letter in the February Vogue.  

Now what, you ask, could be so bad about looking good?  Note the photo above (the only one I could find online, amazingly) from the December 1993 Vogue piece, same photographer, same interviewer.  It's hard to remember (without reading this article) just how much of a tizzy this sent some people into.  Hillary, it seems, does remember.  And won't take the chance again.  It's a shame, really, because -- to quote Rush Limbaugh out of context, "I think she looked sexy."

For historical bonus points -- the several previous First Ladies had been, in reverse chronology:  Barbara Bush, Nancy Reagan, Rosalyn Carter, Betty Ford, and Pat Nixon, none of whom had to worry that their Vogue photos might spontaneously combust.  By the same token, none of them would describe themselves as feminists, particularly not of the Hillary-era vintage, and this makes all the difference.

To feminists, unreconstructed, pre-post, '60's and '70's break-the-glass-ceiling feminists, femininity is a huge problem.  It's what you shouldn't be judged on, what you aren't in control of, what's holding you down and holding you back.  Give in to it at your peril.  Hillary only started to pay any attention to her looks once Bill's political career started to take off and she simply had no choice but to get contacts and put on a little lipstick.  As his political star rose, so did the quality of her image consultants, culminating back in '93 in those pictures.  

Annie Liebovitz is an artist in an era in which such a word is woefully abused, a photographer with the ability to make the most guarded people on earth (and at this point in her career she works pretty much exclusively with mega-celebrities and star politicians) let the rest of us have a peek at an actual human being in there.  A great deal of her work, especially with musicians, is fantastical, but at her best, she can take a simple moment and make it extraordinary.  This is what she did with Hillary.

After all, what is the shot?  A closeup, simple makeup, no obvious lighting tricks.  Hillary, at 46, in full embrace of her sensuality.  She was caught off-guard being a woman, alluring, direct, real.  A woman that a man of many flaws and outsized appetites returns to, again and again.  A woman whom we think we know, saying, No, you know her.  This is me.  It must have really disturbed Hillary the feminist, because no photos of such intensity surfaced again.  She's been scared of her own shadow ever since.

After all, her generation never had the chance to enjoy their sexuality when they were young; they were too busy trying to hide it, ignore it, or otherwise attempt to make it disappear.  Being born female was a problem.  An inconvenience.  A bad stroke of luck.  Belatedly, they have come to see that beauty and power, allure and intelligence, can not only peacefully coexist but are part and parcel of each other.  Hillary is emblematic of her generation in many ways, positive and negative, and this is an excellent example.  Often unsure of how she would like to be viewed, even now, she is the three-dimensional symbol of the existential confusion that has reigned for women who signed on to the panacea of the Women's Movement.

The decision to pull out of the Vogue session in question was made in the fall, before Iowa, before the not-quite-Cry, before New Hampshire and 'finding her own voice.'  In light of how the campaign is actually unfolding, the very best thing Hillary could do is sit for Annie Liebovitz.  Let Annie reveal a Hillary at 60, who is arguably more beautiful now than then, quite possibly in the process of making history.

But only if Hillary dares let us back in.