‘Smile, You’ve Just Had a Big Night’

Even respected pundits reacted to Hillary Clinton's acceptance speech in a way that revealed we've come a long way, but there's an awfully long way to go.

'Smile, You've Just Had a Big Night'

Democratic presidential nomineee Hillary Clinton acknowledges the crowd before delivering her acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia on Thursday, July 28, 2016. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

We’ve asked historian and author Eric Alterman to watch the national party conventions and share his reactions with us in a series of blog posts.

Among Hillary Clinton’s myriad accomplishments to become the Democratic Party’s 2016 nominee for president, the second-most significant is that she is the first female to do so. (The most significant is that she, alone, stands between a sane American presidency and one occupied by Donald Trump.)

That Clinton is a woman is also one of her biggest political problems. As with Barack Obama’s color (also his name and family background), her gender is a symbol to many white male voters that their days of unchallenged rule are over forever. This is not just a problem among conservatives, the undereducated and those frustrated with the hand dealt to them by a globalized economy. It’s a problem for many, many — perhaps most — men.

If you work in academia, in the NGO world or institutions associated with the liberal left, then you’ve spent the last 40 years living in a world in which a priority is placed on hiring and promoting women and people of color. The reasons for this are obvious and entirely reasonable. But it’s no fun for the white men being told to step aside. Resentment is the easiest response, and if enough things in your life don’t go your way, it can turn into bitterness and long-nursed grudges. This is true no matter what politics a person has. The personal is not necessarily political, but it easily can be.

But the so-called “glass ceiling” is only one problem that women in the professional world face. A second is the culture in which they must operate once they begin to succeed in male-dominated professions. Once again, the demand by leftists, especially the feminist leftists, that we police our language for hidden implications of sexism, racism, able-ism and every other -ism can be infuriating in practice. My feeling is that at this point it does more harm than good — and is a clear inspiration not only for Trump voters but also for the entire conservative media universe. But it is a response to something very real. And we saw it at work last night in the way that respected pundits reacted to Hillary Clinton’s acceptance speech.

For instance, MSNBC’s Joe Scarborough advised her, “Smile. You just had a big night,” and Fox’s Brit Hume, complained, “Hillary having a big night in the primaries. So she’s shouting angrily in her victory speech. Supporters loving it. What’s she mad at?” Moreover as Amita Kelly noted on, “FNC’s Howard Kurtz also said Clinton was “shouting” and suggested a more “conversational tone.”

This meme was not exclusive to pin-headed cable news personalities. The much-admired, well-connected Washington insider Steve Clemons felt compelled to tweet: “Instead of lecturing 2 citizens @HillaryClinton needs 2 have conversation w/us. Modulate voice. Tell stories. Set hopes. Smile #DNCinPHL.” (Faced with considerable blowback on his Twitter feed, he apologized and retracted his comments.)

David Brooks, however, was apparently sticking by his criticism of Hillary for her “emotional tone” as her “combative” demeanor.

Did Hillary have any smart proposals for how to address the various crises the country currently faces? Who knows? Who cares. Her ‘tone’ — that is the tone of a woman — is the only topic worth addressing.

This need to advise Hillary extended all the way to the BBC, whose James Naughtie, who in a segment on Thursday’s Today Programme (as reported on The Huffington Post) was asked whether Clinton suffered from a “bit of a woman problem.” His reply: “She does. There’s something about her which puts some people off. It’s partly the history. It’s partly the slightly shrill tone which she tends to adopt sometimes in speeches.” A BBC spokeswoman told The Huffington Post UK that this response was intended only on “conveying in his commentary and analysis the perceptions of Hillary Clinton by US voters.” That hardly improves it, however, since he a) never said this and b) presented no evidence whatever in support of it. (This is typical of the punditocracy on both sides of the pond, alas.)

Attitudes like this present real barriers to women’s success in our society as well as our society’s ability to benefit from what women have to offer. After all, if all we can hear is the “tone” of a person speaking, it’s almost impossible to address its substance. Did Hillary have any smart proposals for how to address the various crises the country currently faces? Who knows? Who cares? Her “tone” — that is the tone of a woman — is the only topic worth addressing. 

To be fair, this is not only a woman’s problem. Remember Al Gore’s alleged problem with “sighing” that dominated The New York Times’ election coverage, among others, in 2000? (Thanks, especially to Frank Bruni, for that.) Such nonsensical coverage helped bring us George Bush, the Iraq War and ISIS, thanks very much. (It’s partially a reflection of just how obsessive our political media is regarding surfaces rather than substance.) But in the case of women it is something far more pernicious. First it is a given, rather than, as it was in Gore’s case, a weird exception. Second, the refusal to take women seriously in public often bespeaks an even uglier pattern of abusive treatment of women in private. Both are currently on display in the reporting on the internal doings of Fox News, which, insofar as racism, sexism and homophobia, it is clear rotted from Roger Ailes’ head on down. Thanks to the bravery of Gretchen Carlson, the floodgates have opened on what was going on behind the cameras at Fox and none of it was pretty. (I wrote my Nation column on the potential political effect of the suit.)

It was (is?) apparently entirely normal at Fox for executives to demand sex from female underlings in exchange for the promotions they deserved. This was true, of course, of Ailes, but also of others. According to this CNN report:

“One former Fox host recently told CNNMoney that Ailes once said to her, “Walk down the hallway slower, I want to get a look at those legs.” A former staffer told The Washington Post, “He would say things like, ‘She’s really got the goods’ and ‘Look at the tits on that one.'” Sometimes, the staffer said, he joked “that he liked having women on their knees.”

Ailes was also apparently fond [of] using terms like “f–king faggot” for gay men of whom he did not approve, and had to leave NBC under charges that he called a rival exec a “little f–king Jew prick.” The purpose of all of this rhetoric is to dehumanize, which is just what Fox, Trump and indeed the entire media culture does to anyone who challenges its hegemony and happens not to be a white, Christian, American male. Is it any wonder that when faced with so moving and powerful a spectacle as two Muslim parents speaking about their pride and grief over having lost their son fighting in the US military, Fox cut the speech for commercials, including one about a paranoid metafictional film about Benghazi, and waited until pop singer Katy Perry took the stage again to return. (Singing while looking sexy; that’s a job a women can do.)

As distasteful as their extreme manifestations may be, the root causes of these problems have no simple solutions. Language policing is counterproductive and affirmative action, based on race and sex, is not only ineffectively targeted; it breeds exactly the kind of anger and resentment I describe above. And yet the problems are real and the destructive behavior it inspires needs to be called out. I say this not only as the father of a teenage daughter who wants her to face only the sky as a ceiling to her ambitions, but also as someone who wants to see our society benefit from the energy, intelligence and ambition of those who, historically, have been thwarted by white male hegemony and the fear and loathing it inspires, and sadly, also enforces.

Eric Alterman

Eric Alterman [email protected] CUNY Distinguished Professor of English and Journalism, Brooklyn College "Liberal Media" Columnist, The Nation, 305 W.98th Street, 2 C-S, New York, New York, 10025, @eric_alterman New book: Lying in State: Why Presidents Lie and Why Trump is Worse