Though months have passed since Hillary Clinton’s historic presidential campaign ended in an equally historic loss, for many of her supporters the disappointment still feels new and shocking. I have spent my career in higher education publishing and teaching on divas, those women who exceed their specific talents and their historical moment to become icons, remembered as much for their behaviors offstage as for their performances onstage. Clinton’s loss should not have surprised me: the most visible women in our culture, equally adored and reviled, divas are meant to fail. Or so the story goes.
The paradigmatic diva story follows a fairly simple trajectory: a woman works her way out of obscurity through a combination of talent, perseverance and luck, and claims a place for herself in the public spotlight. Once there she burns hot and bright, but not for long. Always, she falls. Sometimes it happens quickly, like Janis Joplin or Amy Winehouse, other times slowly, the diva’s powers diminishing gradually as her audience watches through their fingers, cringing. Maria Callas. Judy Garland.
We idolize these divas. We follow them, consume them—demanding all their energy and attention—and then, when they fall, we rubberneck to see the damage. This pattern of diva worship suggests that Hillary Clinton’s loss in November was not only inevitable but deeply longed for by the very women who supported her most. We love the diva because she promises transcendence; we hate her because she disappoints. She alone can’t make the world a better place for women in a permanent way. The diva archetype is but a stand-in for the mother we simultaneously love, grieve and hate, craving her attention as she continually moves from our grasp. So attuned are we to narratives of generative power as masculine that in order to celebrate the femininity of the diva, we must also relish her destruction, namely as she exposes the inevitable nature and fears of our own disempowerment.
Clinton is not a diva in the traditional sense, in public or in private, despite dubious accounts of cruelty and hysteria in former secret service agent Gary J. Byrne’s dishy tell-all, “A Crisis of Character.” But the specter of the diva archetype functions as shorthand for a set of cultural assumptions and stereotypes we attach to highly visible, public women like Clinton. So deep do these cultural assumptions run that it’s nearly impossible for us to know how to evaluate powerful women outside of the narrative this shorthand provides.
Our response to the diva shows us that on a certain level we do not want women to succeed. We cheer for them, push them to perform for us, but the competitiveness of women’s culture tells us that their successes underline our failures. Subconsciously, perhaps, we long for powerful women to fail. Or maybe we want them to succeed—somebody needs to break that glass ceiling—but we also want to punish them for their ambition, for the audacity of their self-confidence.
Hillary Clinton’s ascent took longer than most. In her more than thirty years as a public figure, she’s been subjected to all the scrutiny reserved for our most celebrated stars—her hair, her clothing, her weight, her smile– all photographed, cataloged and criticized, with hardly any of the perks.
This changed during her second bid for president when she became the first woman to secure the nomination of a major political party. Where she underplayed the historic significance of her candidacy during her 2007-2008 run, she embraced it this time, greeting adoring crowds to the strains of feminist pop icon Katy Perry’s “Fight Song,” accepting the Democratic nomination in suffragist white. As she took the podium on the night she clinched the Democratic primary, stretching out her arms in acknowledgement of her victory and of her supporters’ excitement, she dared to be happy, dared to revel in her achievement. And so did we.
Or, so we thought. Let’s face it: we demanded more from her than we usually want from a politician, desperate for the symbolic importance of President Hillary Clinton. Yet, in that moment, if truly we received her as our queen, as our diva and all it also means, unfortunately, we also perhaps wrote the end to her story. The brightness of the diva is not sustainable, after all. We don’t know what sustained brightness looks like for our powerful women.
The diva narrative we have so deeply internalized offers tragedy as the only one way of understanding Clinton’s loss. The death of her career. The end of her dreams, and of ours.
The seduction of reading Clinton as a diva is powerful, because it offers narrative closure to a story that still, two months out, doesn’t make sense. But to do so also undermines her accomplishments, reducing a lifetime of public service to a bid for attention and hollow acclaim. We can’t change the ending to the election, but as her loss solidifies into historical fact, we can take pains to be mindful of how we shape the narrative of her defeat.
The myth of exceptionality that underscores how we evaluate female leaders is a dangerous one. We are culturally addicted to it, believing that a woman has to be the best to be in charge, that she must be above reproach. Even more dangerous, we are addicted to the zero sum game that says there can only be one queen bee, one diva at a time. We need to make the myth of the exceptional woman irrelevant by flooding politics with so many elected women we forget it was ever unusual. Women currently fill fewer than 20% of congressional seats. They make up less than 25% of state legislatures. We must make positions of leadership so widely populated with women that their scarcity starves this singular queen bee narrative of air.