It sounds laughable now, but remember back when we thought a black president portended a “post-racial society”? When Barack Obama was elected in 2008, you didn’t have to put that phrase in quotes. It seemed like an entirely plausible concept.
Now that Hillary Clinton stands to make history as the first woman president, no one is contemplating a post-gender society or even a post-sexist society. There are a bunch of reasons for this, not least the fact that liberal-leaning, elite media are getting so much mileage from clickbait stories about identity politics that a post-anything society (at least anything having to do with race, gender or some other trait that might render you less advantaged than someone else) would be bad for business. Show me a day without a new spate of articles about microaggressions and I’ll tell you to check your WiFi connection.
And then there’s the problem of what it takes to overcome the various negative stereotypes you represent, whether they’re related to race, gender, sexual orientation, ability, social class, geography or the way you cut your hair. It takes various kinds of hard work, of course. But it also takes winning a particular kind of lottery, one in which genes, temperament and cultural background coalesce into a perfect specimen of near unassailability.
Obama, when he emerged on the national stage nearly a decade ago, was one such specimen. His contradictions worked in concert with one another; he was erudite yet streetwise, rational but soulful, from the Midwest but also from the Hawaiian tropics (or from Africa or a planet in an adjacent solar system, depending on your point of view).
Best of all, of course, Obama was black but not entirely black. His presidency marked a major step forward for those who welcomed it, and it was at least a baby step for those who weren’t so sure.
The first woman president will almost certainly have the disadvantage of being entirely female. If Clinton is that president, she will also have the disadvantage of being Hillary Clinton, a specimen to whom the word unassailable has been applied about as many times as the words leggy or manic pixie dream girl.
This is related to how long she’s been in the public eye, because in politics, as in love, you can only idealize someone to the extent that you don’t know them. There’s also the fact that imperfection — and the compromises and frustrations that inevitably accompany it — is Clinton’s very essence. If Obama seemed socially engineered to give the impression that he could (as we said back then) “transcend race,” Clinton’s trajectory has left her vulnerable to some of the most destabilizing types of female trouble: a career delayed in favor of a spouse’s ambitions, a humiliating betrayal by that spouse, a natural skill set that doesn’t include culturally prescribed wifely duties or the crafting and maintenance of culturally sanctioned physical beauty. (This is to say nothing of substantive flaws, but that’s a different conversation.)
All of this raises the question of whether any woman could be as perfect a female presidential candidate as Obama was a perfect black one.
All of this raises the question of whether any woman could be as perfect a female presidential candidate as Obama was a perfect black one. Is there a woman on Earth who could check enough boxes to make people think, even for a fleeting and foolhardy second, that a post-sexist society was possible?
As I followed the fast-breaking non-story of Clinton’s health crisis last weekend, it occurred to me that the only such female candidate would be a kind of cyborg. Half woman and half machine, she could power through pneumonia and not get overheated in any weather, because even at 68 her perfectly toned body could pull off a sleeveless dress along with a bulletproof vest. She would do us the courtesy of aging not merely gracefully but undiscernibly. Only then could she be the transformational figure we so desperately need our political leaders to be.
But given Obama’s success at making society colorblind, it’s naive to think that even a perfect cyborg of a woman president — say the melding of Clinton, Elizabeth Warren, Madeleine Albright and Taylor Swift — would move us in the direction of gender blindness. Gender equality, however, is another matter, one that Clinton could probably help us take some baby steps toward, even if people insist on criticizing her shoes while she’s at it. There’s something to be said for a post-unreasonable-expectations society.