Texts From Hillary Clinton, a Tumblr that imagined the Secretary of State smacking down fools by way of smartphone, may have set a new speed record for the lifecycle an internet meme. The Tumblr went up, went viral, went big media, and then ended within a week after Clinton herself entered a submission, making it literally impossible for the blog to top itself any longer. Unless the internet changes its ways in the near future, this record will likely be topped by the end of the year, but at least one legacy of the whole experiment will live on. The whole thing neatly demonstrated how much Clinton’s reputation has morphed in the past four years, turning her from the frumpy mom figure to an icon of D.C. cool.
The Tumblr founders can’t really take credit for Clinton’s image rehabilitation, since the joke doesn’t work unless the audience already has an image of the Secretary as the badass boss lady. No, this process has been going on for years, and really, there’s no reason to believe that Clinton herself has been consciously managing it. It seems more to be a combination of Clinton shining in a role that puts an emphasis on her skills as a policy maker and the projection of the hopes of thousands of liberal politics geeks who look at Clinton’s time as Secretary as an example of the kind of calm, competent governance they want from the Democrats. It’s pleasing to fantasize about being Secretary Clinton, gliding around the globe effortlessly, charming foreign dignitaries while wearing sensible black suits, sipping coffee while reading the latest news from the Hill on your phone, glad to be above all those petty partisan politics.
What makes it remarkable, of course, is that a mere four years ago, Clinton was seen as embodying everything tired and uncool about the Democrats. Obama fans continually compared Clinton unfavorably to their candidate. The popular internet meme back then was a dueling pair of websites: Barack Obama Is Your New Bicycle and Hillary is Mom Jeans. The former still lives on today with entries such as, “Barack Obama took off when he heard you weren’t coming” and “Barack Obama bought you a new puppy.” Hillary is Mom Jeans has disappeared, however, sent to live with Grand Funk Railroad and fanny packs—other ideas that seemed relevant at the time but kind of stupid now.
Of course, if reflecting back to 2008, it’s hard not to lay part of the blame on Clinton’s feet for the terminally uncool image she had then. In a bid to win over middle America, Clinton deliberately went for the church grandma image, trading in her New York-professional wardrobe for pastels and cracking corny jokes with her husband in campaign ads. At times, her campaign seemed to have leftover trauma from Bill Clinton’s 1992 run, where she was pressured to pat his hand in public and brag about her cookie recipes in order to quell fears that she might just be a feminist.
In her column about the image rehabilitation, Maureen Dowd mistakenly assumes that Clinton’s image shift reflects an actual change in Clinton’s personality. Dowd quotes Jonathan Darman of Newsweek saying, “The speed with which she’s embraced it suggests something has really changed in her.”
The problem with that argument is that Clinton’s current image of the HBIC isn’t a new thing. Clinton’s devoted fans have always seen her in this light. In February 2008, Tina Fey invoked the same image of Clinton portraying in Texts From Hillary Clinton with her famous “Saturday Night Live” rant. Sitting by a picture of a fashionably dressed Clinton, Fey declared, “Bitch is the new black.” Even though it wasn’t Clinton herself who said it, the moment had a gleeful third wave feminist air of transgression about it, evoking of other hip feminist stunts like naming a magazine Bitch or riot grrrls writing “slut” on their bodies and daring you to have a problem with it.
Even among those who preferred Obama, there was a sense that the “real” Hillary Clinton was closer to the picture Fey painted in her monologue, and not the down-home soccer mom image Clinton embraced to win over older voters in the Democratic primary. That’s why her reputation rehab has been so seamless and effective, because the image of her in a black blazer and glasses refusing to suffer fools just seems like it’s her natural home.
Of course, the fact that Clinton isn’t competing openly with a male politician makes it that much easier for fans, either long-standing or newly minted, to project their fantasies of cool-headed female power onto her. One thing Dowd get right is that Clinton has more “permission” to be beloved when she’s subordinate to a man. If she stepped back out and competed directly with a man for power, would the image of calm-and-cool Hillary be replaced with tedious stereotypes about shrill, grasping women? Or are we finally closing in on the day when women can have power fantasies equal to men’s, with mediating them first through some formal subordination?