When Hillary Clinton made a campaign stop in Colorado on behalf of Democratic Senator Mark Udall (currently engaged in a hotly-contested re-election race against Republican Cory Gardner), she was greeted by ebullient tween, Macy Friday. Writing for the Washington Post’s The Fix blog, Jaime Fuller noted that Macy’s expression “has never been witnessed by anyone who is not a dad chaperoning a minivan full of teenagers at a One Direction concert.” Fuller’s choice to launch Clinton into the same stratosphere as 1D illustrates the ways in which celebrity and political culture feed each other in U.S. elections. Turning prospective candidates into celebrities has become a prerequisite in mediated campaign coverage. After all, you can’t topple an individual from their pedestal if they have not, first, been elevated onto one.
A battle veteran (and frequent casualty) of campaign wars, Clinton has benefitted from her status as a political celebrity of late. Because of Macy’s age and the apparent spontaneity of the photo (notice the hair whipping around and Clinton’s surprised expression), the girl’s enthusiasm comes across as more authentic than that showcased in choreographed campaign photo ops. Past history has demonstrated that when Clinton is not actively running for office (i.e., she is not an announced candidate in a particular race), the media tends to treat her more favorably—remember the “Texts from Hillary” meme that exploded as she was exiting the Secretary of State’s office? Kristina Horn Sheeler and I have argued that this enthusiasm has the important function of protecting journalists from the criticism that many earned in the aftermath of the 2008 Democratic primary, a race that was characterized by what Jonathan Tilove called an “onslaught of open misogynistic expression.” As long as Clinton is framed as a political celebrity, “any opposition to her as an actual presidential contender is inoculated against charges of sexism.”
Another important dimension of the photo is the age and gender of Clinton’s fangirl. This election cycle has featured some truly mystifying attempts by the GOP to reach out to young, female voters. The Wall Street Journal highlighted the College Republican National Committee’s “$1 million digital ad campaign” that was rolled out in 16 states and “aim[ed] to draw young voters to the GOP with what the group’s chief calls ‘culturally relevant’ ad campaigns.” So, you may ask, what is it that hipster millennial voters want? They want to shop for candidates like they shop for wedding dresses, natch. “Say Yes to the Candidate” riffs on the series “Say Yes to the Dress,” comparing Democratic candidates to the dowdy, overpriced gown your mom wants you to wear, and Republican candidates to the bride’s preferred choice. Of course, not all female swing voters are ready for long-term political commitment, so an ad released by Americans for Shared Prosperity urges young women to simply break up with their boyfriend, Barack Obama, by voting against “his friends” in the upcoming mid-term election. Ads like these have the pernicious effect of depoliticizing and personalizing civic activities like voting, but the question remains as to whether or not they will actually appeal to young women voters. It’s true that Macy is too young to vote in 2014 (or 2016), but her unbridled enthusiasm serves as a visual argument that the best way to galvanize young women is to advocate for their interests.
As the photo went viral this week, it became clear that the visual argument made by the picture was (at least momentarily) displacing the dominant narrative of late that Clinton’s most important characteristic is her status as a grandmother. Interestingly, CBS’s local coverage of the campaign stop (a story that featured a different picture of Clinton) mentioned Macy and her family but emphasized Hillary’s connection with Macy’s grandmother. This exchange was positioned prominently near the beginning of the article:
The former secretary of state was quick to beckon 10-year-old Macy Friday out of the crowd of onlookers to pose for photos with her, her brother and her father Derek, who introduced his mother Elaine, who had just arrived from Ohio.
“Most important, she’s the grandmother,” Clinton said.
“You’re a grandmother,” Elaine Friday said.
“I know,” said Clinton, whose daughter Chelsea gave birth to her first child on Sept. 26. “Isn’t it the best?”
Once the national media picked up on the AP photo, however, the narrative shifted and took on a more youthful tone. Gawker paired the image with another featuring Clinton gamely posing for a selfie with Macy’s family.
Today announced “When Hillary met Macy: Clinton thrills 10-year-old superfan with photo op.” Time trumpeted, “This Girl Cannot Believe She’s Actually Meeting Hillary Clinton. ‘DAD LOOOOOOKKKKKKKKKKKK.’” Mashable observed, “10-Year-Old Meets Hillary Clinton, Freaks Out.” Gawker’s headline read “10-Year-Old Girl Meets Hillary Fuckang Clintaaaaaaaan!!!!”
Finally, the first picture and its viral dimension illustrates that the media and many voters are more interested in political celebrities than political candidates. Clinton, after all, was in Colorado to stump for Udall. But he is relegated to the image’s background in a particularly ironic way—an arrow-shaped sign pointed to his head with the instruction “drink.” As we settle into the mid-term election’s home stretch, candidates and voters may need something stronger than a double espresso.
~ Karrin Anderson | @KVAnderson
(photos: David Zalubowski/AP)