Dancing Around the Double-Bind: Gender Identity, Likability, and the Musical Rebranding of Hillary Clinton

From the New York Times to Saturday Night Live, media surrounding Hillary Clinton’s second presidential campaign has centered around that ever-elusive (yet seemingly critical) trait: likability. The former First Lady and Secretary of State has endured a long history of criticism due to her perceived elitism and aura of inaccessibility (Leibovich 2015). Naturally, this poses a unique challenge for Clinton in her bid for the presidency. How does a figure with such a potent public persona reshape her image in time for election season?

Unsurprisingly, Clinton’s campaign team has already instituted a series of tactics for dealing with this very issue. Whether by locating Clinton’s campaign headquarters in Brooklyn— arguably the hipster capital of the east coast—or by racking up a formidable number of celebrity endorsements, her team’s early attempts have been widespread and diverse in nature. In a throwback to a tactic used by Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in the last presidential election cycle, Clinton’s campaign team has released a series of Spotify playlists on her public Spotify account. As Dana Gorzelany-Mostak demonstrates in her research on campaign 2012, candidate playlists can “act as a form of social currency, a type of information or ‘buzz’ about a candidate’s brand that citizens can share as a part of their daily lives” (Gorzelany-Mostak 2015). Clinton’s most recent playlist, entitled Girl Power (released on September 24, 2015), showcases a variety of woman-fronted anthems that traverse genres and decades in their exaltation of female resilience.

From the bucolic twang of the Dixie Chicks to the sexy pop-feminism of Beyoncé, the diverse femininities represented in this playlist share a common factor in their mass appeal and accessibility. While this playlist is merely one tool in her team’s arsenal, it is a fascinating example of the underlying gendered dialogue that surrounds Clinton’s quest for likability. In this essay, I seek to unpack the ways in which Clinton’s gendered persona has both been shaped and damaged by the catch-22 of sexist expectations for women in politics. Then, I engage with the Clinton campaign’s “Girl Power” playlist, exploring some of the potentialities and ramifications of using other women’s displays of power as a stand-in for Clinton’s contested political presence.

In order to contextualize this playlist, we must first examine the ways in which dialogues surrounding Clinton have been shaped by her perceived failure to perform femininity. From some of her earliest high-profile political appearances, detractors have derided Clinton for her unfeminine, “careerist” ambitions (Burden and Mughan 1999, 238).  In their survey of media coverage related to Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Joseph Uscinski and Lilly Goren state that Clinton “endured a long history of criticism because in the minds of many, she embodies not only a stereotypical (and negative) representation of second wave feminism, partly due to her unconventional approach to the role of first lady, but also because she represents female progress in general” (Uscinski and Goren 2011, 884–85). Whether it be another jab aimed at her pantsuits or the media’s tendency to refer to Clinton by her first name significantly more often than her male counterparts, conversations surrounding the candidate reveal the ways in which the media has quietly shaped public perceptions of Clinton in a way that delegitimizes her political authority (892).

As such, the male-dominated field of national politics, and in particular, the office of president, has presented a double-bind for Clinton throughout her political campaign: appear more feminine and potentially be perceived as weak, ineffective, or intellectually inferior, or adopt traits associated with male dominance and be depicted as shrill or harpy-like (Duerst-Lahti 2006, 22). In her analysis of Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, Kathryn Kish Sklar argues that Clinton upheld the “masculine mystique” of the presidency by emasculating her primary opponent, Barack Obama, and supporting a hardline approach to military force. Ultimately, however, this machismo approach distanced Clinton from potential female supporters (Sklar 2008, 321).

How then do we begin to interpret Clinton’s “Girl Power” playlist, a Technicolor celebration of feminine strength? First, we need to situate Hillary Clinton in the labyrinthine, multidimensional world of gender. Here, I invoke the wisdom of gender theorist (and self-proclaimed gender outlaw) Kate Bornstein. Bornstein uses the image of a many-sided pyramid to explain the infinite number of gendered identities that exist, with each side representing a trait that entails a certain level of power (or lack thereof). Atop the pyramid is “The Perfect Identity,” or the identity that confers the greatest amount of power upon the holder in a given society or situation. As Bornstein explains, “At the top we’d have the Perfect Gender and the Perfect Race, and the Perfect Class. So, the culturally-agreed upon standards of perfection just might all converge into one identity that’s got the bulk of the power in the world, and that identity relies on its granted perfection from each of the classifications that support it” (Bornstein 2013, 90).

In light of this relationship between power and identity, it is understandable that Clinton has tended towards the adoption of a “masculine mystique” in her bid for the presidency, considering that the presidency is arguably the closest position to a visible manifestation of the Perfect Identity within the American political sphere. Unfortunately for Clinton, her unconvincing performance of femininity coupled with her masculine rhetoric place her in a precarious position: the feared realm between the poles of the gender binary. As Bornstein later explains, this grey area of gender triggers fear in the masses as it represents the uncertainty of the unknown (132), hardly an enviable position for a politician vying for the most selective occupation in the country.

Here is where Clinton’s “Girl Power” playlist can be seen as serving two interconnected functions: first, it legitimizes her identity as that of “a real woman” (Bornstein, 9). The songs on the playlist all feature female artists, either as soloists or as part of female-fronted acts. All fourteen songs on the playlist celebrate resilience, and the vast majority of the selections are high-energy power anthems that frame this topic in an explicitly female context. The few songs that are on the slower side (including Andra Day’s “Rise Up,” Martina McBride’s “This One’s for the Girls,” and Alicia Keys' “Superwoman”) maintain the inspirational theme while lowering the nearly frenetic energy of the rest of the mix.

Clinton’s team tactfully chose artists that would represent her well. Beyoncé's “Run the World (Girls)” appears first on the list, which is surely not a coincidence considering that “the face of contemporary feminism” (Loren 2011)—Queen Bey herself—was one of the first A-List celebrities to endorse Clinton’s 2016 bid (Schwarz 2015). A more traditional selection on the list, the Dixie Chicks’ “Ready to Run” initially seems out of place, but upon closer inspection, its dual functions become evident. The titular phrase “ready to run” gains a new meaning in the context of a political campaign. Furthermore, the Dixie Chicks have a history of rebelling against the conservative leanings of the country music world thanks to lead singer Natalie Maines’s highly publicized criticism of then-president George Bush’s stance on the War in Iraq in 2003 (Thompson 2015). Clinton also has a history with the song—during her 2008 campaign, she included “Ready to Run” on the ballot for her “Choose Our Campaign Song” contest, which was launched on YouTube. By selecting such diverse artists with remarkably similar messages, the implicit message of the playlist becomes clear: Clinton is, in effect, the messiah of empowered women everywhere, capable of rallying forces regardless of location, taste, or lifestyle.

This diversity within the musical selections illustrates the second function of the playlist: the lowering of Clinton’s class designation on the Identity pyramid. While it may seem counterintuitive for Clinton to seek the appearance of a lower class status, her high class status clearly plays a role in her “unrelatable” persona (Leibovich 2015). When viewed from the perspective of genre, one of the only uniting factors in the playlist is that all of the music is mass produced and mass marketed. Color lines are clearly crossed, as genres with strongly racialized connotations, such as R&B and country, appear side-by-side. The playlist is intentionally diverse, perhaps too diverse to be met with approval by most listeners beyond those with the most eclectic palates. It seems to exhibit the same sort of nonspecific positivity for which she was derided in the media (Kasperkevic 2015; Diaz 2015). Despite the sheer number of female identities presented, none seem like a suitable fit for Clinton herself. Rather, she seems conspicuously absent from a playlist touting her name. To view the extent of the role that gender plays in Clinton’s campaign entirely from the vantage point of this particular playlist would be both premature and shortsighted. There is certainly more probing to be done into Clinton’s other musical choices, media appearances, and relentless attempts at reshaping a firmly formed political persona. Nevertheless, this playlist indicates the extent to which Clinton and her campaign team are performing gendered acrobatics to court the female (and feminist) vote. In contrast to Whitney Houston’s bold croon on her playlist, Hillary Clinton is not every woman. And if she wishes to ward off any future Onion articles or SNL skits, perhaps it is time for her to stop trying to market herself as such.

Christianna Barnard


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