Accomplishing Masculinity through First Lady Complementarity

When the jokes turn to the feminine, the women of the social drama are cast as either willing accomplices to hegemonic masculine sexuality or as lesbians, ice-queens, or “bitches” immune to Clinton’s sexual power. None of these constructions of femininity threaten Clinton’s iconic status. If Lewinsky is laughingly, but affectionately, a “good gal,” then Hillary Rodam Clinton is not. An item on still another “White House Intern Job Application” brilliantly summarizes all the approaches to Hillary in the corpus of Internet jokes:

Hillary Clinton is a(n):
a) model wife and mother.
b) icon of late-20th-century femininity.
c) obstacle.
d) inappropriate companion for the leader of the free world.

If answer “c” is putatively Monica’s choice, the other three alternatives are vividly portrayed on the Internet, capturing both contemporary understanding and confusion regarding gender roles and sexuality embodied in Hillary.

“Model wife and mother” might seem an odd label to apply to Hillary, but many of the texts paint her in just this role: vigilant in protecting her child and her family; understanding and forgiving of Bill’s sexual dalliances; the unwitting, blameless victim of circumstances. Perhaps the best example of this is her portrait in Starr Wars. In the far background of the picture, shielding Chelsea’s vision[20], she performs the “model role” of wife and mother.[21] Unassuming, unassertive, backdrop to the real action—sexual and political— nevertheless she is a necessary character in the drama.

This laundry list of characteristics of model wife and mother, vigiliant, protective, and unwitting victim, is also a laundry list for the role of First Lady. For Germaine Greer, the primary function of the First Lady is to “reassure us of the head of state’s active heterosexuality” (22); her second function is to be a “virtuoso housekeeper.” Anastasia Sims adds motherhood to the list: "being a good first lady meant hailing, modeling, and promoting publicly the civic values that good mothers historically instilled" (576-77). The First Family, and the “joint image-making” that creates it (Troy) takes the social imaginary family to its zenith. Darlaine Gardetto writes:

The Family (capitalization intended) understood as Mom, Dad, and the kids—with Dad as primary if not sole breadwinner and Mom serving as an emotional support for her husband and as emotional core of the family—is the social imaginary family. . . This way of thinking about familial relations, I argue, contributes to women’s subordination by supporting the idea that women’s proper place is in the home. The social imaginary family is linked to the first lady symbol. (226)

“School Children” is a brilliant commentary on this conception of family, with its prominent father and supportive mother, surrounded by the kids. Captioned on the site as “What the President is teaching our children,” the public debate over the President’s morals and “character” is transformed into images that make no mistake about the lessons learned. The children’s expressions run the gamut—from obliviousness, nonchalance, eagerness, to shock—but Hillary’s expression is thoroughly supportive. Her neat, buttoned-up, “model First Lady” attire contrasts vividly with the nude women, the “wild ladies,” in the (President’s story) book.

Texts on the Internet also speak indirectly to the “model” wife’s ability to look the other way and to suffer the indignities of infidelities with a smile on her face. “An Invitation to the White House” does just this. This is a “photo-shopped” cover of Hillary Rodham Clinton’s book, An Invitation to the White House: At Home with History, published in 2000 by Simon and Schuster to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the White House. The book is thoroughly invested in constructing Hillary as first “Homemaker,” with sections entitled “Making This House a Home,” “Christmas at the White House,” and ninety pages of recipes from the White House kitchen. The front flap of the book can be read satirically in light of the doctored version: “This is a White House you won’t see on any public tour: As historian Carl Anthony writes in his introduction, ‘This book makes the rooms come alive—one can almost taste the food and hear the music’” (front flap). The Internet text invites the viewer to add, “and watch the soap opera!”

Hillary’s posture features the multiple roles of First Lady: hostess, tour guide, homemaker, perhaps even a reference to her role as holder of the “white glove pulpit”—the power afforded to First Ladies to advocate social programs and agendas.[22] So much in this text complicates these public functions with the private affairs that centered the social drama. Here, the white glove is dubiously singular—for perhaps Hillary is making sure she leaves no fingerprints on the “Billing Records” from the Travelgate affair? The portrait on the wall (in soft focus on the real book cover) is now Karl Marx.[23] Bill holds a teddy bear, a gift from Monica. Most importantly, Hillary seems oblivious to the shenanigans under the desk: the “model wife and mother” is the last to know.

Many of the jokes that feature Hillary as model wife are, once again, borrowed from the cultural storehouse of philandering husband jokes, slipping in the names—Bill and Hillary—in place of generic husband and wife.

• What’s the worst thing Bill ever heard during sex? “Honey, I’m home!”
• What does Bill say to Hillary before a romantic interlude? “Honey, I’ll be home in 20 minutes.”
• Why did Bill Clinton cross the road? To get back to the White House before Hillary did.[24]

A riff on these husband jokes also points to the lack of desire, lack of sexual activity, and lack of sexual experimentation within a long-term married relationship.[25]

• What position does Hillary play on Clinton’s sex team? Left out.
• Who is the only woman in the White House not having sex with Bill? Hillary.
• Bill + Monica=Slick Willy. Bill + Hillary=Slack Willy
• When asked what was the difference between a night of bowling and a night with Hillary the president replied, “If I had to I could eat the bowling ball.”
• The Right Wing Cabal said they're no great fan of Hillary, but they don't think she sucks.

The limerick is a poetic form that flowered during the Clinton-Lewinsky affair, and its typically bawdy content grafted neatly onto the sexual saga. While most of the poems feature Lewinsky, this limerick is unusual for its focus on Hillary.[26]

There once was a prez named Bill,
whose interns all know the drill.
He’d say, “Get on your knees,
and service me, please!
‘Cause I don’t think Hillary will.

Hillary as “model wife” is neither an object of sexual desire nor a desiring subject. In the jokes, Hillary’s unwillingness to engage in oral sex is a vivid contrast to Monica’s exuberance, shoring up wifely sexual duties as decidedly boring, prudish, and vanilla. That Hillary “suffers in silence” as model wife is evidenced by jokes that name her as the object of derision, but never give her first-person voice.

The second choice in the multiple-choice question, “Hillary is a(n) icon of late-20th-century femininity,” is fascinating testimony to our cultural awareness of changing roles for women, the pressures brought to bear by shifting political, economic, and sexual tempers, and the centrality of Hillary as “icon” in the cultural landscape. Karrin Vasby Anderson neatly summarizes Hillary’s lighting rod capacities:

During her tenure as first lady, Clinton either was reviled or lauded for the challenges she posed to traditional femininity. She was seen as an icon of feminism, a threat to femininity (or masculinity), an embodiment of the complex roles facing modern women, an everyday baby-boomer struggling with marital problems and empty-nest syndrome. (109)

The jokes on the Internet become a catch-all for these conflicts, capturing numerous double-binds: professional woman and homemaker; sexually desired and desiring; at once responsible for her husband’s behavior and unable to do anything about it. A number of jokes pun on “first” in First Lady, as well as incorporating other “news” items:

• Why does Hillary want to have sex with Bill every day at 5am? She wants to make sure that she is the first lady.
• How does Hillary feel? She may be the FIRST LADY, but she won’t be the LAST.
• What’s the name of Hillary Clinton’s new White House intern? Lorena Bobbit.
• What does Bill tell Hillary after sex? Nothing, she hears about it on the evening news.

These jokes seem particularly poignant renditions of many married women’s lives: “A First Lady symbolizes the collectivities of wives who are caught between the symbolic spaces of the political and domestic spheres, and who are under attack for having access to power” (Edwards and Chen 386).

The most interesting approach to Hillary in the multiple-choice application is “inappropriate companion for the leader of the free world,” for it opens the door to a number of parodies and pictures of Hillary, as well as highlighting the complementarity of gender roles. If Bill is the paradigmatic masculine “leader,” then Hillary must be the paradigmatic feminine “follower.” The texts on the Internet thoroughly blast her for her unwillingness to play this complementary role: “Why does Bill Clinton cheat on Hillary? He wants to be on top.” Perhaps playing on Newt Gingrich’s mother’s infamous interview, in which she characterized Hillary Clinton as “rhymes with rich,” the jokes freely use the real term.

• Why did Bill Clinton buy a MALE chocolate Lab for the First Dog? Because there was already one FIRST BITCH in the house.
• Have you heard the new meaning for the word B.I.T.C.H.? Bill’s In Trouble, Call Hillary.

If the first joke pours venom with all capitals, then the second rallies around the power captured in the word. This “power,” however, takes a number of turns in some amazing graphics. In Lord of the Flings, Hillary is “The Witch Queen,” and an uncaptioned text takes a delightful S&M route to her power. Perhaps the most powerful critique of Hillary pastes her face onto a portrait of Hitler, captioned “the Fuhrer.”

Whether witch, dominatrix, or the most reviled man in contemporary history, Hillary clearly stands for contemporary fears and confusion about feminine power—mythical, sexual, and political. Without the watchdogs of mainstream media, the Internet is a forum that takes those fears to the limit and is fearless in attributing sources:

In response to many inquiries from her devotees, Judith Martin (“Miss Manners”) has decreed that the preferred term whenever addressing or referring to first lady Hillary Clinton, is “madam.” Citing Teapot Dome, Watergate, Iran-Contra and Zippergate, she said, “It’s become clear to me that the President’s wife essentially is responsible for running a house of ill repute.”

This “madam” joke nicely illustrates the tension all First Ladies have felt, caught in the public/private bind, especially in the age of celebrity. “How do you maintain your privacy while peddling your life story?” (Troy 379). Texts on the Internet exploit this tension and revel in speculation.

Indeed, the Internet gives loud voice to quiet rumors of Hillary’s possible love affair with Vince Foster and her “questionable” sexual orientation (Templin). In her analysis of editorial cartoons, Templin writes, “To actually portrait Hillary Clinton as a lesbian in a cartoon would be more daring than a mainstream newspaper could allow and presumably would be libelous” (25). Internet jokes, however, fear no such repercussions. Lesbian jokes on the Internet, however, have a decidedly homophobic flair, casting the lesbian as a “failed woman” or “wannabe man.”

• How did Bill and Hillary meet? They were both dating the same girl.
• Official “Vast Right-Wing Conspiracy” alert: We no longer support the theory that Hillary had an affair with Vince Foster. It’s Janet Reno. Pass the word.
• "You know two weeks after Bill Clinton leaves the White House, he'll be a free man."
"Yeah, so will Hillary."
• Why is Chelsea Clinton so ugly? Because Janet Reno is her dad.
• Hillary sleeps with as many women as Clinton and almost as many dead men.

The “photoshopped” Spy Magazine cover caption, “Where that shady $100,000 came from and what it bought,” references Hillary’s $10,000 investment in cattle futures and its $100,000 return. As the wind blows, reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe’s famous Seven Year Itch scene, the graphic reveals not only her tighty-whities, but her erect and moving penis. While Marilyn’s dress was white, Hillary’s is black, recalling witchery, the “dark” arts, and cultural condemnation of blackness (Dyer). Taking the cliché, “the real pants in the family” to its logical extreme, “Hillary’s Big Secret” not only portrays Hillary’s sexuality as threatening to Bill’s masculinity, but as thoroughly “unnatural,” appropriating the phallus and the power that adheres there. That she “bought” this penis, supposedly through a sex-change operation, recalls our cultural fear of transgendered individuals: “If we have a sense of ‘rightness’ about ourselves as men or women, gender outlaws scramble it. Gender dysphoria—even someone else’s—literally gets us by the short hairs, where we live, between our legs” (Califia, Sex Changes 2). Drawing Hillary as a “gender outlaw” cuts deep.

In the two years that comprised the indicative social drama, an odd thing happened: whenever Bill Clinton’s polls went down, Hillary’s went up, and vice versa (Pope). This is testimony perhaps to the zero-sum game that is masculine and feminine balance of power and our cultural inability to imagine gender and sexuality performed differently. Texts that paint Hillary as model wife, mother, an icon of contemporary femininity draw from a vast storehouse of cultural constructions of “woman,” drawn always in familial, political, social, and sexual relations to men. Hillary’s “inappropriateness” comes precisely at those moments when she is drawn without reference to men—as lesbian, dominatrix, or ice queen—or when she appropriates the “big secret” that is phallic power. These pleasures script her outside the phallocentric order that reduces all to the masculine. Hillary, in these multiple constructions of feminine and masculine on the Internet, is representative of larger cultural fears and desires—that of the feminine unanchored from its binary and hierarchical pairing with the masculine.

While the social drama scripted her most often as the wronged, yet supportive, wife, the cultural performances on the Internet found so much more to talk about. The future of Senator Hillary Rodam Clinton and her putative run for President remains part of the tripartite chronology of culture at play: parodying the present, subverting the past, and “mortgaged to the future in the form of a store of possible cultural and social structures, ranging from the bizarre and ludicrous to the utopian and idealistic” (Turner 170). Soon, I believe, we’ll start seeing cultural performances of a different kind, attendant to the possibility of a second President Clinton. Like the social drama and cultural performances that debated competing definitions of sexual relations, competing definitions of the masculinity and heterosexuality of the Presidency will surely center those conflicts. “Madame President” is already a double-entendre.

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