Why the media doesn’t understand how to cover Hillary Clinton’s health

Male politicians have had millennia to hone their virile, bombastic personas. Now it’s time to overturn the trope of women’s frailty.

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Does Hillary Clinton have a secret illness? If you believe Twitter’s alt-right, probably. The famously private Democratic nominee was revealed to have pneumonia last weekend after collapsing at a 9/11 memorial service. But certain parts of the internet are sure it’s something more sinister; something that would make her too weak to be President.

Mainstream publications have mostly shied away from the conspiracy theories, but not the subject. “Why haven’t Clinton and Trump shared more information on their health?” asked the Boston Globe, while over at the New York Times, Frank Burni pointed out the physical and mental brutality of the campaign trail, adding that Donald Trump isn’t exactly a sprightly young thing himself.

Strange press coverage is no longer surprising to those who have been following this year’s hustings. What is unusual, though, is the sheer volume of writing Clinton’s health has prompted. The media does not normally dwell on one subject for seven days. This is more than sexism: it is fixation.

Clinton has to manage her public image more closely than many other presidential candidates both because she is a woman and because her opponent lacks class. Speaking at a rally in Ohio after Clinton’s collapse, the New York Times reports, Trump asked his supporters if Clinton “would be able to stand up here for an hour”. (On that note: of course she has pneumonia. If I’d had to be that polite in the face of so much ridiculous bullshit, I’d have popped a lung.)

Sarah Crook, a historian based at Queen Mary, University of London, says that there is a long history of associating women with frailty. “Becoming a teenager, falling pregnant, giving birth and entering the menopause are seen as inherently risky for women,” she says.

Add that to the fact that “getting older hasn’t been seen to be a natural process, but something to be resisted, denied and obscured” and the fuss over Clinton is unsurprising. “The interest in and anxiety over Hillary’s health,” Crook says, “can be read as part of a broader morbid fascination with women’s bodies”.

Men in power have been styling themselves as virile for as long as women have been called weak. Warfare and finance may have changed in the twentieth century, but the appeal of powerful men has stuck: wealthy, bombastic, warmongering men flock to political office like moths to a flame. The cult of personality surrounding Trump is eerily similar to the cult of personality that surrounded early modern kings. As disquieting as the image of Trump standing astride a painted globe in a codpiece is, I don’t think anyone would be surprised if he commissioned it.

The bizarre, off-key missive from Trump’s doctor – so like a school child’s forged sick note that a part of me expected to see “Donald’s mum” in clumsy crayon at the bottom – was the misplaced tactic of a more naïve age, when most people were illiterate and disagreeing might mean getting your head chopped off, anyway, so who was to worry too much about the idea of plausibility?

Meanwhile, women politicians have to be competent and calm; human but not too emotional; firm but not bossy; aggressive enough to construct a defence policy but not aggressive enough to be disrupt middle America’s notions of femininity. Public failure is not an option, and weakness is a failure.

Clinton walks this tightrope with a deftness that ought to stun us – yet it is the deviation from her usual persona, in the form of an illness, that has sent the press into a tailspin.

So, why the obsession? Doubtless it is partially due to the extra weight attached to this race, as the potential first female president goes up against a candidate whose own party half-wishes to disown him. But it is also because this is untested ground.

Where men have had thousands of years to figure out how a male leader should fashion himself, women have only entered Western politics in significant numbers during the last century.

On one level, it’s fascinating to watch the media trying to get to grips with this clash of tropes. On the other, it’s horrifying to see regressive themes finding new life in the age of women’s political excellence.

Hopefully, there is still time to shape how we talk about women politicians and health so that discussion can become dignified and productive – especially if Clinton wins. After all, the trope of women’s frailty is so exhausted it’s probably ready to collapse at a memorial service itself.

Perhaps it’s time for it to take a few days off.

Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.