So in the spirit of defending a woman’s right to be an imperfect human being: Hillary Clinton does not owe you shit. Not at a Starbucks, not in the woods, not at George H.W. Bush’s funeral.
If you’re a woman, I want you to take a second and think of a time that a stranger has told to you smile. A particularly memorable time. Right now, I’m thinking of a night about five years ago when I was bundled up, sitting in my car on a nearly-empty road, trying to get the heat going while I waited for the light to change. I was fumbling with the vents and the dial, my face tight with focus, when a pedestrian slammed up against my driver’s side and banged his fists on my window. I shrieked and immediately locked my doors. “Hey!” he yelled through the glass. “You look so sad. SMILE!”
We’re all tired of being told (sometimes, screamed at) to smile, so now I want you to imagine that you’re in a much more public place. More than that, you’re a public figure in that public place, and it’s on you to make everyone else feel relaxed and comfortable. But there’s someone you don’t want to see, someone who has hurt you deeply. He sits down in the same row as you and you give a congenial nod to his wife, then turn away and focus on something else – anything else – in the room.
If you are Hillary Clinton, you are not allowed to react this way. You are supposed to “rise above” the man who invoked the second amendment and advocated for your death by smiling sweetly, meeting his eyes with yours, extending your hand to let him know that the hatchet is buried. But to do that would be disingenuous, not to mention an erosion of your boundaries. Since you don’t have anything nice to say, you decide not to say anything at all. Instantly, you are deemed “spitting mad,” “bitter,” and a “sore loser.” Your “stone-faced” contribution to a “tense atmosphere” is not giving the American public the feel-good illusion of harmony it craves.
A woman I know from my recent political work reacted to the scene at President George H.W. Bush’s funeral. “I know how uncomfortable I become when I even think my ex-abuser is in the same venue as me,” she wrote on Facebook. “So think how HRC feels having to be around 45 today and on a worldwide stage.” She’s right. Even though Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have no romantic or familial history, the dynamic between them is eerily similar to an abuser and a survivor. Donald Trump has publicly fantasized about and strongly encouraged her imprisonment. His followers, like Scar’s hyenas, gnash their teeth at the mere mention of her name. And this past October, she (along with several other prominent Democrats) received a pipe bomb from avid Trump supporter Cesar Sayoc.
Hillary Clinton even describes feeling threatened as Trump loomed over her during the 2016 presidential debate in St. Louis:
He was literally breathing down my neck. Do you stay calm, keep smiling, and carry on as if he weren’t repeatedly invading your space? Or do you turn, look him in the eye, and say, loudly and clearly: Back up, you creep, get away from me. Maybe I have overlearned the lesson of staying calm, biting my tongue, digging my fingernails into a clenched fist, smiling all the while, determined to present a composed face to the world.
Several years ago, right after I went No Contact for the first time, I ran into my abuser at a bar. I was terrified. But like Hillary, I was determined to present a composed face to our mutual friends who were there as well as to my date. In my resolve to look calm, cool, and collected, my nerves got so bad that I threw up. Women, lest we forget, are expected to manage everyone else’s emotions while suppressing or discounting our own. To pundits like John Cardillo and Jim Holt, what mattered in this moment was not Hillary Clinton’s personal safety and security. It wasn’t the trauma of seeing someone who once suggested that gun owners take action if she won. It was distracting the American public with bipartisan nostalgia and making them feel self-congratulatory for honoring a decent human being. Most contrarily, Hillary refused to play a role in that fantasy.
When I talk about Hillary Clinton, I fight a kneejerk impulse to add a disclaimer. Yes, there are things she’s said and done that bother me or that I don’t agree with. No, she’s not perfect. And then I realize that this never crosses my mind with other politicians. At some point in her career of public service, Hillary became so universally “unlikeable” that any appreciation for her demanded qualification. Wrestling with a caveat of she’s not perfect when I think of her is exhausting. Women do it all the time, when we think of ourselves.
So in the spirit of defending a woman’s right to be an imperfect human being: Hillary Clinton does not owe you shit. Not at a Starbucks, not in the woods, not at George H.W. Bush’s funeral. Not a smile to the man actively undermining the democracy she loves. Not graciousness to someone whose supporters thirst for her blood. She has been terrorized, and unlike most of us who are not public figures, she cannot simply go No Contact with her abuser. Let’s let her live in whatever peace she can find.
Chelsea Cristene is an international student adviser, English professor, and graduate student based in Washington, D.C. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, The Establishment, and MamaMia, and has appeared on HuffPost Live. Find her on Twitter.