November 8, 2007
Following the most recent Democratic Primary debate, on MSNBC this past October 30, much of the news media reported that a room full of male candidates seemed to all gang up on the sole woman in the field (and front runner) Hillary Clinton. She was roundly deemed to have been given a bruising. You can see the video of the debate and judge for yourself at the New York Times.
I find it hard to see. What these reports find so blatantly apparent, Hillary stumbling and taking her licks, to me looks more like one person who has become the center of everyone’s interest and who can hold her own against a roomful of formidable opponents. Let me stipulate that I am not especially a Clinton supporter and not particularly motivated to defend her (she is too middle of the road and too much of an establishment candidate for my taste).
Still what I see in the video is a woman who is defiant and has a powerful understanding of the issues, for the most part a greater understanding than the other candidates. Even on the New York State driver’s license question, where the news media almost entirely understood Hillary to have botched the end of the debate, I see her simply taking a complex position, which the rest of the candidates want to falsely and maliciously portray as double-talk.
In the end, to me, what the video shows, but which is not reported, is that Hillary really seems to have become the center of power. She has what everyone else wants. What else could it mean that both the Democratic and even the Republican primaries have come to be almost entirely defined by the question: Who can beat Hillary?
And yet, there remains this curious disjunction between the debate itself and the way it has been generally reported in the media. Why were reporters so eager to latch onto the idea that Hillary had been hurt by a roomful of attacking (male) opponents? It is as if, while appearing to critique the problematic gender dynamics of the debate, or at least the imbalance of the critical remarks made during the debate, and while simultaneously ignoring the power of Clinton’s position, what the reporters were really salivating for was the opportunity to tell the story of a woman taking a hit (whether they were sympathetic to that woman or not).
We all know, from the invention out of thin air of the Howard Dean scream (compare video shot from the crowd to the audio enhanced version aired by FOX news and others), that what the media reports can bear a much greater reality than its putative subject matter. But in this case it goes farther. Not only does the media seem to have invented the story of Hillary’s bruising after the fact, it also seems to have been trying to stage it in the first place. In the video, you can see that, from start to finish, criticism of Hillary by any candidate was for the most part initiated by Tim Russert, one of the two reporters playing the role of “moderator” for the debate, and to a lesser extent by Brian Williams, the other “moderator.” Candidates criticized Clinton in response to repeated questions from Russert and Williams that followed the formula, “Hillary said…What do you think?”
I don’t know if Russert and Williams have personal vendettas against Hillary or both of the Clintons, but they clearly wanted to stage the bruising that Hillary was subsequently reported as having undergone; even though, again, I think if you actually watch the debate Hillary comes out looking stronger, not bruised. So there you have it, the news media sets the stage and then after the fact reports what they wanted to have happened, as having actually happened, whether it did or not.
But there’s more to this. It doesn’t really stop or start with Clinton and the debate. The spectacle of a blonde woman raised onto a pedestal only to be taken down a notch by the media and popular opinion seems to be in the air these days. It’s like a sure fire hit that no one can resist. I’m reminded of the now famous YouTube video of Miss Teen South Carolina making a terrible gaffe in the Miss Teen USA pageant, this past August, and then only a couple weeks later Britney Spears delivering a commandingly lackluster performance on the MTV Music Video Awards. (I also learned, while writing this post, of another similar video that made the rounds of disparagement in the past few months–Merry Miller botching an interview with Holly Hunter for ABC News, this past July.)
In the case of Miss Teen South Carolina, it’s worth dwelling on a few statistics. If you add up the multiple postings of the video of her gaffe on YouTube (there are dozens), it has been viewed in two months over 28 millions times. If there were simply a single posting of the video, given these numbers, it would at this point in time be the 9th most viewed video in YouTube’s entire history. The only other videos that have come close to rising this quickly to the top of YouTube are a handful of popular commercial music videos. But even in comparison to the most popular of these commercial music videos, the Miss Teen South Carolina video appears to have had the quickest rise to the very heights of YouTube viewership of any video in it’s entire history. (This video in fact eclipses the number of views currently garnered by the Filipino Prisoners’ “Thriller” video—8 million—which I previously posted about, an arguably far more startling and fascinating clip.)
What accounts for the unprecedented YouTube popularity of the Miss Teen South Carolina video? Can it really be said to be, by some measures, the most interesting and entertaining video ever to be posted on YouTube? Many pious viewers attempt to explain what draws them to the video, by wringing their hands about whether or not they’re watching out of sympathy for someone letting her nervousness spectacularly get the better of herself or on the contrary because the video offers a galling indictment of American ignorance (Miss Teen South Carolina was unable to answer a question about why one fifth of Americans can’t place the U.S. on a world map). Even ostensibly feminist columnists seem confused or torn about what’s actually going on here.
Certainly Miss Teen South Carolina’s gaffe is astounding (and for me painful to watch). Certainly many Americans are ignorant. But is that really enough to explain the overwhelming numbers of viewers in comparison to other engaging videos? I don’t think you have to go far to find an answer. Look at the comments on YouTube itself, or on sites like Digg and Technorati, or do a Google search of blog posts about Miss Teen South Carolina. It’s hard to miss the mean-spiritedness (usually explicit) that completely dominates what people are saying. This video, people seem to think, is the perfect example of a dumb blonde and that makes it immensely entertaining. Consider even the numerous video responses on YouTube to the Miss Teen South Carolina video, many of which have become popular in their own right. They all take the dumb blonde routine and run with it (or to a lesser extent the dumb Southerner routine).
No wonder so many people, after the recent Democratic debate, were dying to tell the story of Hillary stumbling and dropping the ball or at least of her being subject to “withering” rebuke (as the New York Times said), even if it didn’t actually happen. Clinton is a blonde woman, she’s symbolically from the South, due to her association with Bill Clinton and years spent in Arkansas, and it looks like that’s all it takes to fit the bill. Indeed, some bloggers are already making an explicit comparison between Hillary and Miss Teen South Carolina, for the purpose of ridiculing the presidential candidate.
And so, to pretend that the enormous popularity of the Miss Teen South Carolina video has anything to do with the rationalizations of a tiny minority of viewers who claim to view the video for sympathetic or socially critical reasons, is to ignore what the utterly vast majority of people are saying and to willfully blind oneself to an essentially misogynistic media phenomenon.
After all, can it be any coincidence that yet another Southern blonde woman, Britney Spears, within a couple weeks of Miss Teen South Carolina, managed to become the subject of overnight fascination for a bungled performance at the MTV Music Video Awards (to say nothing of being the subject of general fascination for her ongoing tabloid decline). Of course in this case, there were those who followed the prescribed routine and attempted to lay out critical responses to the Music Video Awards by tempering them with a whole host of morally self-justifying palliatives. Spears was purported to represent the mediocrity of popular music, or her experience exposed the exploitive nature of the music industry, or she was served up as an exemplar of bad parenting, or she simply showed us another rich spoiled brat getting her comeuppance. Yet, if you look into the comments on the MTV Music Video Awards on mainstream web sites, what you again find is an enormous majority of people ridiculing Britney’s body and the flaws of her performance. (Despite the fact that, as far as Spear’s body is concerned, it is svelte and lithe and could only be considered undesirable in comparison to the fetishized teenage body that helped her rise to fame–and her performance was at worst dull and unprofessional, not ridiculous).
The same sort of analysis could be done of the popular video of Merry Miller, which I mention above, in which she botches her interview of Holly Hunter, for ABC. And here again, it is a case of a blonde woman from the South subject to ridicule for a blunder.
With each of these videos, though most prominently in the case of Miss Teen South Carolina, there seems to be a willful refusal by much of the media to distinguish the insights of their social critique from the broad phenomena that determine how and why these videos capture general public attention. There seems to be a general desire to make it all much more complicated than it is. There is a powerful motivation to muster a whole host of real but in each case sideline issues (American ignorance, personal failure, the music industry, etc.) to rationalize and mask the overwhelming mass of public opinion.
And so I return to the recent Democratic debate and Hillary Clinton’s putative bruising. On the one hand, there’s the actual video, which shows Hillary as the focus of the entire election, aside from the war, and therefore as occupying a position of central importance. On the other hand, you have the story told in the news after the fact and the way Tim Russert (mainly) egged the candidates on, seeming to actively want to hold Clinton up for ridicule. It’s as if the desire to see Clinton, the only female candidate, taken down a notch by a roomful of attacking men, is more powerful and more real than anything else.
I can only conclude that in America, even when it’s not true, everyone likes to see a blonde (from the South) fall on her face. And I have a sneaking uneasy suspicion that this could be what comes to drive interest in the entire presidential election. I can only hope, despite my misgivings about her politics, that if Hillary wins the primary, she also wins the presidency and gets the last laugh.