THIS WEEK, Hillary Clinton tried out a joke in Iowa. "We face a lot of evil men," she told voters in Davenport. "People like Osama bin Laden come to mind. And what in my background equips me to deal with evil and bad men?" Clinton then smiled big and chortled, cueing the audience that this was not an oral presentation in a women's studies class but, indeed, a joke.
Questioned later by reporters, who weren't sure if they got it, Clinton said: "You guys keep telling me, 'Lighten up! Be funny!' I get a little funny and now I'm being psychoanalyzed."
The clip made the expected blogospheric rounds and wound up on "The Daily Show," but I think the only psychoanalysis this incident warrants is an examination of just why Clinton's search for a sense of humor has been tougher than locating a lost contact lens in the Dead Sea.
Surely it shouldn't be this hard. Just about every profile ever written about her has quoted friends and colleagues who point out her sense of humor, frequently prefaced with the word "wicked." Where's all that cutting hilarity when the world is telling her to "lighten up?"
It's possible, I suppose, that Clinton's friends' taste in humor is such that coy jabs at her husband (or could it be Newt? Or Kenneth Starr? Or President Bush himself?) passes for biting wit. But it's more likely that her flat footedness is a symptom of a double standard that rarely comes up in conversations about the challenges faced by powerful women. If there's anything that can hinder a woman's credibility faster than becoming visibly pregnant or getting caught watching Lifetime, it's revealing the ability to be genuinely funny.
Of course, in politics, men have never exactly given Oscar Wilde a run for his money either. Considering that, in 1996, Bob Dole was the wryest guy on the national campaign trail since, well, all the other times he ran for president or vice president, we should know better than to expect constant knee-slappers from these folks, at least intentional ones. But Clinton's problems have been thrown into high relief because her chief competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, appears to be as charismatic as she is stiff.
Obama has yet to let his handlers drive him into poll-driven blandness; so far, he looks like a natural. And although we don't know whether he has the chops to sell himself as president, his body language suggests that he's not working quite as hard as Clinton is. Stoop-shouldered and never quite sure what to do with his hands, Obama resembles the goofy math geek whom the girls had secret crushes on in high school because he made them laugh.
Clinton, hyper-focused wonk that she is, has a personality that has long appeared to be the product of focus groups and advisors from the Professor Henry Higgins Finishing School for Formerly Radical Broads. She has been so ravaged by the media, the public and, it would seem, her own perfectionism that she comes across less as a human being than as a historical figure whose legacy depends on keeping her humanity out of the equation.
It's possible she's right about that. But the fact that we're seeing a black candidate who seems infinitely more relaxed with himself than his female competitor speaks volumes about just how much we're likely to punish women who step outside the bounds of corporate-flavored gravitas.
Part of this is Clinton's own fault — the very act of saying "you keep telling me to be funny" is depressing evidence of her burdensome self-consciousness. But then again, female humor is easily bent into the worst cliches about women. Funny men, after all, are considered smart, confident and sexy. But wisecracking chicks risk accusations of bitterness, hormonal instability and the assumption (no matter what they look like) that they're using wit to compensate for physical unattractiveness.
As a result, a lot of ambitious women have been conditioned not only to tone the comedy down (remember the old dating adage, "Laugh at his jokes, but don't be funnier than him"?) but to resist witty self-deprecation, a genre that some old-school feminists were too tin-eared to interpret as anything other than a sign of low self-esteem. What's left is stridency, earnestness and painstakingly rehearsed jokes ripe for reducing to male-bashing sound bites. The effect: the Cathy comic strip character with a campaign bus. Ouch.
Is Clinton funny deep down? I'm willing to bet she is, only because I doubt she could have survived the last 15 years without either a sense of humor or a serious Quaalude habit. But I'd also bet most of us will never see it, no matter how hard she tries. Even if she learns how to tell a joke, the colluding forces of media savagery, Washington banality and a culture in which female power is not yet entirely compatible with having a real personality will render her something less than human. Will it cost her the nomination? Who knows. But it's already cost her much more than that.
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