March was Women’s History Month, and though it was ultimately overshadowed by the pandemic, at the start of the month (International Women’s Day was March 8), it was something to truly celebrate. In Los Angeles we really did too, with a wealth of events, talks and gatherings reflecting the empowerment that women across the country have been, if not feeling at least seeking, as we moved into 2020. Many of these planned events had to be canceled, of course, due to the coronavirus.
2019 saw some powerful women make an impact on culture- Greta Thunberg stood up to our bully President, Nancy Pelosi and AOC fought for us against Mitch McConnell and his fellow GOP curmudgeons in the Senate, and acclaimed films such as Bombshell and A Marriage Story showed female perspectives in real and uncompromising ways. As 2020 began, there was a lot of hope in terms of the fight for justice and equality. More women than ever were running for the highest office in the land (though this sadly, didn’t last), Weinstein got 23 years in jail for sexual assaults and two compelling documentaries came out to provide somewhat parallel takes on powerful and largely misunderstood women.
If you have yet to see Nanette Burstein’s four part doc series Hillary on Hulu or Lana Wilson’s Taylor Swift doc Miss Americana now is the time. You have the time, after all. These intimate looks at the pop star and the politician are best viewed one after the other, by the way, and they provide an enlightening cap to a month that should’ve/could’ve been a time of elevation for women’s rights.
First things first. I’ve always been a Hillary Clinton fan and always felt she got a bum rap, even before she ran for office. She struck me as smart, strong and sincere but lacking the kind of warmth and social skills that maybe a politician needs to be successful. While I respected her refusal to do more than “stay home and bake cookies” in her role, I was surprised when she decided to pursue a political career after Bill Clinton’s presidency ended. As the documentary makes pretty clear, a lot of people -men and women- hated her, and she never quite figured out how to change that. The series pulls footage from Clinton’s historic 2016 presidential campaign but also provides a behind the scenes look at her time as Barack Obama’s Secretary of State, her days as the First Lady, and most fascinating, her years as a young law student and feminist. Her 1969 commencement speech at Wellesley was nothing short of Gloria Steinem-level badass, and her time at Yale Law School showed early her resolve to make a difference in the world. Interviews include her husband Bill, her former campaign managers, longtime friends, and media people who covered her over years.
If you hate this woman before watching it, it probably wont change your mind after, but it might open your eyes a bit. The misogyny Mrs. Clinton dealt with most of her life is undeniable here, and the series does a great job of humanizing her even -maybe especially- when she it concedes her flaws, from denying her husband’s philandering ways to being somewhat judge-y (she criticizes her Democratic rival Bernie Sanders for getting nothing done and disparages his followers, which was probably a bad idea as this became the take-away from the doc when it was released) to having an at-times unrealistic take on her own self-importance and how she’s perceived by the public.
Losing the election to someone as utterly despicable as Donald Trump seems to have changed that as she’s obviously had time to reflect both on her own missteps and the ways the universe -what happened in Bengazi, the email server fiasco, etc.- conspired against her. Like the best documentaries filled with twists and turns (Tiger King), this one has its share of WTF moments (like that time the pussy grabber brought Bill’s accusers to sit front row at the presidential debate). It’s all stranger and sadder than fiction could ever be, especially in light of Trump’s current ineptitude in the wake of the coronavirus and the lives it’s costing as you read this. One cant help but wonder how things might be different had the electoral vote been different.
By contrast, the Taylor Swift documentary might not seem as consequential or historical, but it kinda is. Miss Americana, like Hillary, is shamelessly slanted in the subject’s favor, but that doesn’t make the vitriol either dealt with any less true or sad. In the age of social media the public is more eager than ever to tear down a successful woman, and for someone like Swift, a person with a self-admitted “need to be thought of as good,” that can be mentally exhausting if not devastating. Watching Taylor cry and hide and worry about stuff here you start to understand why Hillary -who started her public life around the same age only with a more pugnacious persona- became seemingly hardened in order to pursue her goals and get things done.
Swift stayed out of politics most of her career because she was told to, but as she grew up that became harder for her to do, especially after the Kanye West debacle at the MTV Awards and his subsequent attempt to take credit for her fame because of it. This feud by the way, just became timely again as new footage of a phone call between the pair leaked last week reveals that he was less than forthcoming about calling her a bitch in his song about the whole mess, which made the popstar retreat from the public eye for nearly a year.
Then there was that groping radio show host incident which forced Swift to show up in court after he sued her for speaking out. She won the lawsuit, and in context of the #metoo movement, the cute country singer who was best known for singing about her boyfriends became something much more monumental and inspirational- a woman who spoke her mind no matter the consequences. Whether you dig Swift’s music or not, watching her express herself through it here and watching her grow stronger because of it, is pretty inspiring. It leads to the popstar’s personal awakening and drives her to use her platform for change- via Twitter and ultimately in her music and videos. Advocating for gay rights and equality for women, and calling out social media trolls, body-shamers, and more, Swift emerges, as Hillary does despite her losses, as a voice that won’t be silenced. Hopefully, as the 2020 election nears, this will continue to be the case for both of them.