The Smartest Girl in the Room Runs for President
Because they were boring, I remember very little of high school English classes, and even less of The Great Gatsby. Most of what I remember of that book boils down to two things: The first is that Nick has a giant, poorly-repressed homosexual boner for Jay Gatsby. The second is more enduring – it’s when Daisy says about her newborn daughter; “I hope she’ll be a fool – that’s the best thing a girl can be in this world, a beautiful little fool.”
How true, I remember thinking to myself, and how sad that it almost a century later and that was still the best thing a girl could be. I wished, with a not-so-small but shameful part of myself, that I was also beautiful and foolish.
The age a kid learns that everyone hates smart people varies. I have a theory that, all things being equal, everyone is born with a similar capacity for brilliance. How that translates into adulthood depends on how fast a child learns that it is to their advantage to act stupid, and at what point their brain starts to wither from disuse. Talk to any kindergartner and they’re bright, unique, vivacious, and funny. Talk to any high school senior, and the majority of them are beaten down into replications of each other. They are insecure about whatever hasn’t been wrangled into submission, and that insecurity stays with them their entire lives.
I don’t know what age I personally figured this out, probably some time in my early teens. I know I did my best to avoid the realization throughout my adolescence and have in my early adulthood resigned myself to it. I’d like to lie and say that this means that, unlike everyone else, I have empathy and don’t mind sharing a room with someone obviously smarter than me, but I don’t. I still hate it.
I was, depending on who you ask, either lucky or unlucky enough to be born into the perfect set of circumstances to grow up into a very smart girl. A lot of it has to do with my parents, both of whom are very intelligent themselves, and who passed down to me a strong will and tendency towards obsessive research. Both of my parents were willing to drive me to the public library on a near-daily basis, or entertain hours upon hours of probing and not entirely age-appropriate questions. I also have a mental restlessness that no one’s ever been able to explain, even with an ADHD diagnosis. Nothing bothers me more than intellectual boredom, and I’ll sit down and learn anything to alleviate it. I spent a lot of time in high school not doing my homework because I thought it was stupid or tedious and I was too busy researching something that I deemed a better and more interesting use of my time. I don’t know if I’m actually an inherently smart person, or if I’m just inherently bored, and the fruits of my boredom add up to the appearance of intelligence.
I grew up in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, squarely in the era of Girl Power. Feminism had taken one sip of the heady cocktail of equality and gotten super drunk. Women had, by that time, shown they could have it all, that they could be successful in high-powered careers previously dominated by men, and often that they could outperform them. But somehow, the message taken away from that was not that women were capable of being phenomenal if they wanted to or were able, but that women must be phenomenal. We were all supposed to pilot a mission to Mars, become a Spice Girl, and then for fun slide down a soccer field on our knees in a sports bra after winning the World Cup. I remember when I was younger seeing an illustration in a magazine of a woman who was multi-armed like a Hindu goddess, holding cell phones and laptops and the groceries and several children, effortlessly juggling all of them with a serene expression and halo. That illustration was what we were meant to grow up to be, lest we be bad or ungrateful feminists. In retrospect, of course, this is a ridiculous expectation, but at the time it seemed not only logical but necessary for keeping the gains women had made alive.
The old ideas of what girls should be didn’t go away once the first wave of feminism took hold. Girls of previous generations had a clear list of things to Never Ever Do. Don’t have sex. Don’t speak out. Don’t have a job. Girls my age had a more muddled, confusing list of medians we were supposed to hit. Have sex, but don’t have too much sex. Have your own voice, but not too loud or bitchy a voice. Have a job and be successful at it, but not so successful as to make a man feel uncomfortable, and be willing to give it up the second you are ready to have a family. Because, of course, you will want to have a family (and with a man, too).
I’d never advocate going back to an era where girls didn’t have opportunities, but on some level I do envy it. A “no” is an easy thing to figure out. There two ways to react to “no”: you accept it, or give it the finger and do your own thing. It takes a genius to navigate the perfect medium of what a girl is or isn’t supposed to be now.
But not too much of a genius, of course. That’s the very worst thing any girl can become.
As much as possible, I try not to talk about Donald Trump. He is the natural endpoint of living in a society that rewards metrics like clicks and page views and buzz, and the way to make him go away is to not give him any attention and especially not any votes. His ideas are old ones that fade in and out of popularity, but the easiest way to make them go away faster and for longer is to refuse to give them space to grow. I can’t resist making a joke, of course, but I try not to make it about him, and more often a play on words, or social commentary. There has been more than enough discussion about Trump, and not a lot constructive left to add to the discussion.
And yet, for argument’s sake, I think it’s important to consider what Donald Trump and the role he plays in our society says about sexism. Trump shows us that not only is it real and a huge problem, but that it’s a problem we seem weirdly dedicated to pretending isn’t there.
I don’t consider Trump a smart man in many ways, but I will say that as a professional grifter, he’s good at understanding marketing and the economics of buzz. He didn’t discover it – fame that rests upon a foundation of delighted disgust was how the Kardashians built their empire, after all. People love being scandalized or mildly outraged, they love gossip, and “no press is bad press” is one of the oldest and easiest cons in the book.
Entertainment, like politics, relies on the idea of a person being symbolic of a concept or brand – something that speaks to either a micro-targeted group or a larger swath of the population. When someone or something is successful, it is because they resonate.The question isn’t “why are they popular?” so much as “what are they selling that invokes a reaction in people?” And, if you want to get really deep, “what does having that reaction say or mean?”
When I ask these questions about Trump’s particularly odious brand of nationalism, one of the biggest things that stands out to me is what parts of his message people react to. And what we talk about and pick apart, what gets the most attention about Donald Trump, is very clearly one thing – racism. I think that’s a good thing, and that outrage over blatant racism is long overdue. But I can’t help but notice that Trump’s sexism is, for the most part, allowed to pass with far less examination, and I can’t help but wonder why. Why is it Donald Trump rose to power only once he embraced Birtherism and started advocating building a wall and banning Muslims? Why has that stuck to him, when his decades of on the record sexism were always shrugged off as an eccentricity, until very recently?
When Trump uses something from his seemingly endless arsenal of sexism, like saying Hillary Clinton “just doesn’t have the presidential look”, the only people it angers are people who are already angry. Trump could – and I know this because Trump has – say that women are animals. He can discuss sexually assaulting them on tape and then pretend “I’m sorry you were offended” counts as enough of an apology. He draws and quarters women like pieces of meat, like he’s a butcher looking for the juiciest cut. He’s repulsed by every part of a woman’s body while simultaneously claiming to love and cherish them. He believes every woman wants to have sex with him, but that any woman that does have sex, even with him, is disgusting. But the only real difference between him and any other zealously pro-life politician for the last twenty years is that he says these things honestly and enthusiastically, knowing there are microphones to catch him.
Maybe the reason that Trump’s sexism doesn’t shock people is because it doesn’t even register as novel or awful. We’ve all heard it before. I’ve heard it before, sometimes about other women, and more often directed at me. Sometimes the men saying these things didn’t know I could hear them. Some felt it was perfectly acceptable to say these things to my face. I’ve never been able to tell what’s a worse betrayal. I’ve never been assaulted, but I have been catcalled, stared at, and had my body moved and manipulated like a sexless mannequin by strange men without my consent. I live in as sexism-free a bubble as I can manage, but I did go to highschool, and I have had jobs, and I do have an internet connection that I use in large part to watch and comment on sports, and while so far I’ve been lucky, I know I’m playing sexism Russian Roulette. If even I in my supposedly safe spaces didn’t find any of these things surprising, they aren’t going to be shocking to anyone.
The media seems incapable of discussing any of Trump’s many failures that in any other year would be disqualifying, but since he’s running against a woman, are somehow now acceptable. Even before the tape where Donald Trump suggested he could “grab a woman by the pussy” there were many recorded instances of Trump being verbally and often sexually abusive to beauty queens and reporters and coworkers and his own daughters. Instead of discussing this, we all ruminated obsessively on Clinton’s supposed problem of trustworthiness and morality. Trump has released a threadbare at best medical history, is older than Clinton, and frequently takes time off the campaign trail for no given reason, yet it’s Hillary Clinton’s health and stamina we scrutinize. The money Trump raised for his charitable foundation went to himself, but it’s Clinton’s charitable foundation that uses 90% of its proceeds inoculating poor children against disease, that we scrutinize. Trump has shady dealings with foreign governments and businessmen and a weirdly intimate relationship with Russian dictator/president Vladimir Putin, but he isn’t a threat to our national security, whereas Hillary Clinton’s unsecured email is. It’s acceptable for Trump to have no coherent policies, yet Clinton is often berated both for not articulating her policy and having a platform that is too purely oppositional, or if she does explain her policy, seeming “wonky” or “boring” or “unlikable”. What policies Trump does have aren’t even the policies of other Republican candidates, they’re pure word vomit, not rooted in any version of reality. But if Clinton so much as changes her mind on a trade deal after seeing how the details work out, somehow that’s a sign of ideological impurity or a flaw of equal significance.
This phenomenon isn’t, as so much of the media and so many voters insist, because of who Hillary Clinton is as a person, and divorced from her gender. If that were true, other women in politics wouldn’t face the exact same problems, but they do. Studies comparing the performance of male and female politicians has shown that women are objectively much better at their jobs. And not just a little better, a lot better. Women sponsor more bills, write more legislation, and work more with members of other parties. The legislation they work on is more likely to pass. And yet political parties repeatedly run into issues even recruiting women who are willing to run for office. The women who do run face grim, uphill, often personally nasty battles trying to win their seats. The United States Congress is, going into the 2016 election, still less than 20% women. After the 2016 election, the most optimistic projection would have women being 21% of Congress. If you want to calculate that out, that means that women will make up half of Congress at soonest in 2040, just over 120 years after the 19th amendment was passed.
Women being degraded is so constant, so insidious, that we’re numb to it. It seems normal at this point to micro-analyze a female candidate’s records and judgment and health and God only knows what else while passively allowing men to get away with far worse. If male politicians are put through even a fraction of what female politicians are, it’s quickly decried as petty and partisan. Putting women through the ringer, though, even when they are members of your own party, that’s just another day in American politics.
I don’t blindly support Hillary Clinton or agree with all of her policies, because I don’t blindly support any politician or agree with all of their policies. I have qualms about some details of her platform, and worries about how she – or anyone, for that matter – is going to reunite such a fractured country. She’s been a public servant for decades and made her share of mistakes, same as any other politician. She has scars from operating in Washington that make her seem closed off, secretive, sometimes even bitter or like she has something to hide. I can empathize with that, though. I can understand why she is the way she is. And even considering all these things, I probably have fewer reservations voting for her than I’ve had for many male politicians I’ve voted for in the past – male politicians who never had every newspaper endorsement inevitably include the sentence “[male politician] isn’t the perfect candidate” before picking apart their every flaw.
During Barack Obama’s presidency, liberals, and to a lesser extent the media, formed a protective bubble around him. People seemed able to grasp that because of who he was and what he symbolized, large swaths of the country were determined to see him fail and to violently dislike him, regardless of the reality of what he said or did. His presidency played out in a rigged minefield, and we called that what it was: racism.
I’ve never been able to understand why Hillary has never inspired that same sympathy. Sure, she’s had ginned up controversy dogging her for decades, from Whitewater to Benghazi to her e-mail server to her very human tendency to succumb to illness when working a grueling schedule, but none of it has turned out to be any more true or morally insidious than anything Obama’s done. There has never once been any fire under all that smoke. She can be negligent, perhaps, or display an unattractive hubris. But somehow, it’s still women like Hillary who are uniquely asked to bear the burden of every misstep they have ever taken, no matter how insignificant or how many men take it with them.
Whatever kind of person people think Hillary Clinton is, and whatever they think of her policy positions, it’s impossible to argue that she’s not accomplished, intelligent, poised, or passionate about what she does. We can’t argue that because that’s also what we hate about her. We hate that she’s unabashedly brilliant and thoughtful. We hate that we can’t hide her competence or that we can’t argue her victories are only thanks to her husband. We hate that she’s probably, in all honesty, a better person than her husband is, and certainly has a more presidential temperament and better judgment than him. We hate that we feel judged by her, though we can’t quite say why we feel this way. We hate that she reminds us of our mothers and grandmothers. We hate that she is a mother and grandmother. We’d also hate if she wasn’t one. We hate that she’s too female. We hate that she’s not female enough. We hate when she looks attractive or dresses nicely because then she’s shallow or vain. We hate when she looks old, or unattractive, or tired, or sick, or even – God forbid – normal. We hate when she shows emotion. We hate when she’s emotionless. We hate when she speaks. We hate the tone of her voice, the expression or lack thereof on her face. We hate her because we know, whatever room Hillary Clinton is in, she is the smartest and probably most accomplished person in it.
We all hate the smartest person in the room. But we all have a way of being able to overlook that hatred when the smartest person in the room isn’t also a woman.
As a kid, I was bad with other kids. I was bossy, a know-it-all, and just generally insufferable. My peers hated me, and I don’t blame them. I’m not really any better about this an adult, I’m just better at hiding it by making it into a joke at my own expense.
My parents of course had their faults parenting, but they always managed to walk the line of somehow not dampening my drive or intellect while pointing out that maybe my need to push that intellect in other people’s faces was the reason no one liked me. It must be a very weird and difficult position for a parent to be in, to tell their child that it’s in their best interest to learn, on occasion, to fake being a little more stupid.
In spite recognizing that this was a skill I should pick up, I never did. I’m almost comically bad at speaking less, or speaking slower, or using smaller words or describing less complex ideas. I’ve lost track of the number of conversations I’ve been in or classes I’ve sat through where I think I’ve done a very good job of not saying a word and looking bland and thoughtless, only to have a total stranger turn to me and go, “you look like you have something to say” or “you look like you know what to do, here”. I think I never learned this skill out of spite, and because the idea that I should learn such a thing made me angry.
Growing up, I believed in Girl Power, and that being smart and strong and confident was the best thing I could possibly be. I wrapped these traits around myself like a blanket and wore them with pride. I’ve struggled through this election when normally elections are sources of excitement to me. I feel like I can’t log on to Twitter or Facebook or turn on the TV or radio or even try and date and not come away feeling defeated, more helpless than usual, or like maybe my life wouldn’t be better if I could manage to play the part of stupid and silent easier, like there’s something wrong with me, because most criticisms of Hillary are things I’ve had adults and people in positions of power say to me my entire life. This election feels personal, and not the warm and fuzzy way the last two elections did.
I’ve been wondering, lately, how many women there are – in America, and all around the world – that feel this way, and how many women live their entire lives feeling this way. I wonder about all the women who are better than me at playing silent and stupid, and probably also smarter than me, and what kind of effect that ends up having not just on them but on everyone, and what we’re all missing. I wonder what could be done and how much better the world could be if we listened to what women had to say and put them in positions to be heard instead of silencing them almost reflexively. I wonder how many more women we’d have in positions of power if the roads to get there weren’t ones that anyone with any self-preservation instinct would refuse to go down, or that any woman with a single flaw would feel she was disqualified from going down.
Hillary Clinton becoming president won’t solve sexism any more than Barack Obama solved racism. There will still be girls who, like I did, go home and cry because someone called them bossy or bitchy or told them they don’t matter because they’re ugly and no one will ever want to fuck them, and that’s if they’re lucky and worse doesn’t happen. I believe – because I have to believe in order to get out of bed in the morning – that things will get better in time as a natural progression of society. But I also know better to believe that any one woman, even if she is president of the United States, will singlehandedly fix them.
Here is what Hillary Clinton being president will fix: when a little girl goes to visit the Oval Office, she will see someone like her at the desk. When she turns on the TV or hears the news, the voice of authority that comes from it will be a woman’s. She will see a woman holding the highest office in the land – a woman who is intelligent and accomplished and who people said would never succeed because of those traits. She will see that being flawed is not a disqualifying burden, and that being prepared, trying hard, and caring a lot about something gets rewarded.
But what I hope, more than anything, is that President Hillary Clinton will maybe begin to fix adults, too. Maybe, when a new mother holds her baby daughter and thinks about what she hopes that baby becomes, she won’t have to wish that her daughter grows up to be pretty and foolish. Maybe, finally, that will no longer the best thing a girl can hope to become.