On June 10, 2013, Hillary Clinton took to the Twitterverse. Her inaugural tweet addressed Adam Smith and Stacy Lambe, the Washington, DC, public relations professionals who launched the short-lived but enormously popular Tumblr "Texts from Hillary," in which Secretary of State Clinton was pictured engaging in fictional text exchanges with politicians, leaders, and celebrities (Smith and Lambe 2012). Clinton's tweet read, "Thanks for the inspiration @ASmith83 & @Sllambe--I'll take it from here ... #tweetsfromhillary" (@HillaryClinton 2013).
Journalists and eager supporters searched for clues about Clinton's political future in her Twitter bio, which described Clinton as a "wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate, FLOAR, FLOTUS, US Senator, SecState, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, TBD...." Some speculated about whether or not the "TBD" was meant to suggest a future presidential bid. Washington Post columnist Philip Rucker (2013) noted that Clinton's Twitter profile was an attempt to define herself "not as a staid politician but as a witty, self-effacing and almost hip netizen." The Washington Post's Jena McGregor (2013) argued that unlike other potential 2016 presidential candidates, Clinton used her Twitter bio to capitalize on the opportunity to be "personable, even vulnerable," stating that Clinton "gets that many women define themselves not only by their professional role, but by their passions, their families, and the chapters in their lives--making her Twitter debut not only a play for young voters, potentially, but for female ones, too." Clinton tempered the feminine feel of her bio with her Twitter avatar--the famous "photograph of steely, globe-trotting Hillary on a military plane wearing dark sunglasses and reading her BlackBerry" popularized on Tumblr's "Texts from Hillary" (Rucker 2013). The timing of Clinton's inaugural tweet also was notable, as it followed congressional hearings on the State Department's handling of the terrorist attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya, on September 11, 2012. After testifying to Congress in May of 2013, Clinton's unfavorability rating climbed to 39 percent--the highest it had been since 2009 (Weiner 2013).
Although social media provide political figures like Clinton the opportunity to communicate directly with citizens outside of filtered news sites, it was not Twitter's open conduit that made it a particularly useful communicative mode for Clinton in the summer of 2013- Instead, Twitter's unique format allowed Clinton to revise and strategically deploy the favorable "Texts from Hillary" meme, capitalizing on positive momentum created by the 2012 Tumblr sensation. Of particular importance was Clinton's attempt to create a new meme using an existing one. Her tweet united the popular "Texts from Hillary" photograph with the new "#tweetsfromhillary" hashtag. Rather than addressing the concerns of her critics through a speech, press conference, or e-mail message, Clinton sidestepped the criticism entirely, reminding her audience of what Talking Points Memo's Benjy Sarlin (2012) called her "own brand of badass cool." Consequently, Clinton's Twitter debut illustrates a new type of strategic image management: a political meme mash-up in which politicians attempt to capitalize on existing memes that originate from outside the sphere of information elites.
In this article, we examine the political "meta-meme" as deployed by Hillary Clinton in 2012 and 2013, arguing that the interplay between elite and quotidian discourses illustrates the ways in which U.S. presidentiality is shaped by rhetorics of postfeminism. In postmodern political culture, candidate image is a hyperreal amalgamation of image fragments generated by the individual politician, her/his campaign communication, news framing, and political pop culture. In the Internet age, a politician's image also can be shaped by non-elite discourses on sites such as Twitter and Tumblr. Politicians of all genders attempt to capitalize on favorable memes and resist unfavorable ones. When acting within the constraints of postfeminist political culture, however, women are disadvantaged. To date, U.S. political culture has shown tolerance of, and even enthusiasm for, fictional or potential women presidential candidates. This case study demonstrates, however, the ways in which supportive memes belie the sexist undercurrent that persists in U.S. presidential culture.
Mediated Political Identity
When polled about their willingness to vote for a well-qualified woman candidate from their own political party, 95% of U.S. respondents answer affirmatively (Jones 2012). Importantly, however, those polling data refer to a nonspecific, hypothetical woman candidate. Actual women presidential candidates have mustered far less support and have been subjected to gendered stereotyping, media bias, and political pornification (Anderson 2002; Carlin and Winfrey 2009; Falk 2010; Jamieson 1995; Sheeler and Anderson 2013). To date, of the many presidential bids launched by women, Hillary Clinton's bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination garnered the most support. Despite her formidable campaign organization, ample funding, and considerable political experience, however, her candidacy was eclipsed by that of Barack Obama, a relative newcomer with less than a full term's experience in the U.S. Senate. Clinton's loss has been attributed to a variety of factors, including Obama's campaign charisma and fund-raising acumen, the electorate's "Clinton fatigue," and Democratic voters' dissatisfaction with her stance on the war in Iraq (Dunham 2008; Goldenberg 2008; Lawrence and Rose 2010; Sheckles 2009). In addition, the sexism and misogyny hurled at Clinton during the 2008 primary certainly impeded her campaign (Sheeler and Anderson 2013). Clinton contended with more than sexist slurs in 2008. She campaigned within a broader culture that explicitly touted women's political equality while simultaneously disciplining female presidentiality, an act of cultural contortion made possible by rhetorics of postfeminism (Sheeler and Anderson 2013).
"Postfeminism" is the label given to a variety of social and intellectual responses to the liberal feminist gains of the 1970s. As women achieved greater representation in professional, athletic, and political spheres in the United States, opponents of the feminist movement initially responded with vociferous opposition. In 1991, Susan Faludi chronicled the backlash against feminism that produced journalistic, pop cultural, and academic assertions that feminism had done women more harm than good. Although antifeminist currents continue to run strong in the ocean of U.S. political culture, women's progress has made explicit antifeminism increasingly untenable. Unfortunately, however, this shift has not ushered in a new era of gender equity. Instead, postfeminism developed as an alternative discourse that was surprisingly effective at doing antifeminism's dirty work (McRobbie 2004, 2008; Tasker and Negra 2007; Vavrus 2002; Dow 1996). Proponents of postfeminism suggest that although select legal reforms secured by women's movements (such as the right to vote, laws against sexual harassment, and equal pay legislation) were necessary and advantageous, the problems of gender inequity have largely been solved, and contemporary feminist politics are unnecessary, misguided, or damaging. Postfeminism is a particularly pernicious cultural force because its proponents avow fidelity to the feminist value of equality even as they oppose feminism's broader principles and politics.
Former Alaska governor and Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin illustrates the ways in which postfeminism has been articulated in contemporary political culture. When she was campaigning as a vice presidential hopeful, she told journalist Katie Couric that she considered herself to be a feminist (Couric 2008). Her extended answer reveals, however, the ways in which feminism's call for gender justice (Dow and Condit 2005) gets repurposed by postfeminists as a breezy assertion that feminism's work is done. Palin stated, "I'm a feminist who, uh, believes in equal rights and I believe that women certainly today have every opportunity that a man has to succeed, and to try to do it all, anyway. And I'm very, very thankful that I've been brought up in a family where gender hasn't been an issue" (Couric 2008). For a postfeminist like Palin, acknowledging the structural oppression that lingers in U.S. culture is a barrier to women's political progress. Feminist writer Jessica Valenti sees Palin's postfeminism as "part of a larger conservative move to woo women by appropriating feminist language. Just as consumer culture tries to sell 'Girls Gone Wild'-style sexism as 'empowerment,' conservatives are trying to sell anti-woman policies shrouded in pro-woman rhetoric" (Valenti 2010).
Postfeminism is more than a cultural Trojan horse used to smuggle antifeminist sentiments into public dialogue and popular culture. Part of its appeal is rooted in the perception that postfeminism is flexible and playful, whereas feminism is intractable and dour. Limor Shifman and Dafna Lemis (2011, 256) explain that postfeminist discourses--in particular those that are expressed in the context of Internet humor-- often employ irony as a "way to 'have it both ways,'" couching ostensibly subversive humor within a broader, more conservative, framework. Two types of Internet humor identified by Shifman and Lemis (2011, 261, 265) are "Mars and Venus" humor that "highlights gender differences between men and women," and "Girl Power" humor...