Hillary Killed It on ‘SNL’ — But Was There a Sexist Double Standard?

Hillary Clinton did a wonderful job with her SNL cameo this weekend, an occasion we at Flavorwire hoped would arise sooner rather than later. Playing “Val” the bartender, soothing the woes of Kate McKinnon’s Hillary Clinton during a campaign break, the real Clinton was warm, self-deprecating and charming, and her deep-voiced Donald Trump impression was spot-on.

She effectively copped to taking too long to come out in favor of gay marriage and against the Keystone Pipeline, which pleased left-leaning critics, while also staying loose and smiling as she sang a duet with McKinnon. To a casual observer, she pretty much nailed it — and her appearance, combined with a few charming moments in her recent Lena Dunham interview, are genuinely helping her show off her sense of humor.

Of course some punditry was divided on Clinton’s SNL appearance; for months, many media horse-race observers have said she’s too stiff, but now that she aced her cameo, the “try-hard” narrative re-emerged.

This idea — that rather than a simple course corrective, the SNL appearance was a product of maniacal scheming — is an example of what veteran Clinton reporter Jonathan Allen calls the Clinton Rules, describing a set of unfair guidelines he thinks the mainstream media often uses only when covering the Clintons. Rule #5? “Everything [Hillary] does is fake and calculated for maximum political benefit.”

Whatever you think of that idea, the reaction to Clinton’s SNL appearance might also be evidence of a slight gender double-standard, which has emerged in recent years, regarding what candidates need to do to seem likable and cool.

I went back and looked at other major candidates’ SNL appearances from the last election round and no one, not even Sarah Palin, was exactly up there admitting to policy mistakes the way Hillary did this weekend (although Palin did have to keep a pleasant face and nod to the beat while Amy Poehler goofy-rapped in her voice.)

But compare both Clinton and Palin’s appearances with  then-candidate Obama’s appearance. He showed up in a skit mocking, not himself, but the Clintons, and while all the other candidates had costumes, he didn’t wear one because he was so authentic. The skit poked fun at Amy Poehler’s Hillary, who was attired in a bridal dress that everyone thought was a witch’s costume, and had to endure jibes from Bill, who was dressed as a pick-up artist named Mystery.

And then there was John McCain’s appearance with Tina Fey, who made fun of Sarah Palin’s expensive clothing. McCain got in a few potshots at Obama and grinned through Fey’s Palin mugging. He did make a joke about his campaign’s money woes, but mostly he was able to use the appearance as a vehicle for his message.

To point out this double-standard isn’t to blame the SNL writers; it may very well be that the sketches take direction and input from the candidates’ “teams” as much as the other way around. It’s a culture-wide problem. It demonstrates that female candidates have to work harder to prove that they can take criticism and a joke at their expense — while male candidates are able to the same forums to look tough and make fun of their opponents.

Political likability, in all its complexity, is a gendered issue. And it gets even more complex when you’re talking about anything having to do with Hillary Rodham Clinton, a public figure who has done unfortunate things but also been treated abysmally.

It’s a situation that makes feminist Clinton watchers feel a lot of complex emotions. As Rebecca Traister predicted in her essay, “A Hot Mess For Hillary,” which has been circulating among feminists this weekend.

She will disappoint in ways that will make her adherents shake their heads sadly; then she’ll be pilloried so harshly that even some of her critics will suck in their breath at the level of hostility. She is the screen upon which all of America’s very long-standing, very complicated, fairly unattractive feelings about women will be projected for the next 13 months.

Even if it’s unfair that Hillary has to portray herself in this faux down-to-earth manner, she rose to the occasion this weekend. It’s hard to get indignant over a gauntlet she ran so beautifully. But as the campaign goes on, we politics-watchers should keep in mind that the gauntlet is there.