Depending on who you ask, Secretary Hillary Clinton is either hopelessly ill—doddering through the campaign on her last legs—or the right is constructing a giant conspiracy theory around her with the help of everyone from Fox News to the darker corners of Twitter. This shouldn’t even be a question, but the attempts at leveraging Clinton’s health as a political weapon have escalated, and the stakes are dangerously high. Thus, it’s time to have a reluctant conversation about the brilliantly constructed narrative surrounding Clinton’s nonexistent health problems.
We were reminded of what should be the nontroversy of Clinton’s health this week when Dr. Ben Carson commented that “elderly” presidential candidates should be forced to release their health records (as though the Clinton campaign hadn’t done so). Questions about her health have suddenly gone viral, exposing a fascinating and complicated tangled web of misogyny, ableism, and what, for lack of a better term, could be called Clinton Conspiracy Culture.
Perhaps this is why Clinton felt obliged to appear on an episode of Jimmy Kimmel Live! to open a jar of pickles, thereby demonstrating that she isn’t, in fact, on the verge of keeling over. It was a bizarre collision of politics and pop culture that simultaneously revealed the media savvy of the campaign and highlighted how ludicrous this election has become.
Tabloids have been speculating about Clinton’s health for years, especially in the aftermath of a 2012 injury that sent her to the hospital to manage a blood clot. As Donald Trump’s campaign has flailed around for attack material, it’s seized upon her health, suggesting that she’s unfit to be president because she’s sick with some sort of unspecified illness—though the right has tried to slap a range of diagnoses upon her, including seizures and dysphasia, which Trump campaign spokesperson Katrina Pierson brought up just this week.
Clinton has also been accused of taking too many naps, lacking stamina, laughing inappropriately, being diagnosed with Parkinson’s, and having brain damage, the latter dating back to groundwork laid by Karl Rove in 2014. With that many diagnoses, it’s a wonder the woman has time to fit all those public appearances in. But the conspiracy theory also dovetails beautifully with the pop culture presentation of Clinton. She’s often depicted as an awkward, ungainly, cold, strange, closed-off woman who isn’t “relatable” enough, and it’s easy to attribute these alleged behaviors to health problems or claim that they’re evidence of autism. Clinton is caught in the unwinnable trap of needing to avoid the appearance of being overemotional while also not looking cold, and it’s landed her square in the crosshairs of the conspiracy theory factory.
The Clinton campaign actually released a health report in July of 2015, but the pervasive presence of this political pop culture meme underscores the fact that those with extremely partisan politics really do refuse to see what’s right in front of them. Perhaps especially when it comes to Clinton, a woman who has become the target of visceral hatred. The notion that Clinton is too ill for the presidency pops up from YouTube to Fox News to Reddit to Twitter accounts claiming to have her medical records. Part of the reason why the meme just won’t die is that she’s a Clinton, but it’s also because she’s a woman, and the history of undermining women in politics on the grounds of their health is ancient.
Whether we’re talking about menstrual rage or hysterical suffragettes, sexism has long painted women as incapable of holding serious positions in society and politics because of their deep and suspect lady feelings, which clearly cloud their judgments and sometimes even their functioning. When Trump talked about “blood coming out of her…wherever” in reference to Megyn Kelly, he was exploiting that meme, reminding viewers that many women menstruate, and playing upon an ancient belief that periods render women helpless and emotional, incapable of doing important man business. And though people are usually thinking of cis women in this context, trans women who are daring enough to enter politics, like Misty Plowright and Misty Snow, face their own transmisogynistic attacks.
The very notion of “hysteria” is rooted in these beliefs, though the term gets thrown around so commonly that many people have forgotten its origins. Far from being a slang term to refer to frenetic, overstated responses to events, it was once an actual medical diagnosis—one of a “wandering womb,” a dangerous and mysterious condition triggered by having a uterus. The ancient Greeks believed that women had to be taken in hand to mitigate hysteria, centuries before practitioners were hypnotizing women and subjecting them to “genital massage” to combat “hysteria.” (Thanks for inventing the vibrator after your hands got sore, though, bros.)
Panic about “women’s disorders” has driven social attitudes for centuries—it’s not just that women are inherently weak by nature of being women, but that their own bodies attack them, disqualifying them from equal roles in society. Whether directly or through dog whistles, women in politics have long faced attacks questioning their abilities to serve specifically because their internal organs might revolt at any moment. Attackers exploit a cross between worst-case scenario and the most feared and hated aspects of what society associates with femininity—what happens if a menstruating woman has to hold negotiations with Russia or respond to a domestic crisis? How can a menopausal woman cope with the stress of politics on top of whispered threats of hot flashes and hormone replacement therapy?
The argument that Clinton is unhealthy calls upon myths about women and leverages the public’s hatred of the candidate, but it also draws in another thread: ableism, and the notion that disabled people aren’t fit to be president. It’s the same thread being exploited by the left when it smugly pronounces that Trump is crazy, and it’s a distasteful reminder of how the general public views disabled people. Attack strategies that use illness and impairments play upon a base fear and hatred of disability—there’s a reason why the notion of an autistic presidential candidate is so terrifying and why accusations of mental illness are such excellent tools for discrediting candidates.
Pop culture brings the narrative home by constantly subtly reinforcing all these memes, making it much easier to leverage them. There’s a direct line of connection between how female characters a la Winona Ryder in Stranger Things are perceived as “shrill,” “crazy,” and “hysterical” and the deep-seated belief that women—especially “sick” women—don’t have a place in the political landscape. After all, do you want a president who communicates with the upside down via Christmas lights?