Beyoncé, the world’s reigning pop superstar, and Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, are the two most famous women of 2016. Beyoncé’s first group, Girls Tyme, premiered on Star Search in 1993, the same year that Hillary Clinton became the First Lady of the United States. Pushed into the spotlight before she hit puberty, Knowles’ early career was dictated by the whims of her Svengali father, Mathew Knowles. From Girls Tyme to Destiny’s Child, she danced and sang on command, producing hit after hit. Then, Beyoncé did something uncommon for a star of her stature: The destiny’s child who we grew up with, an industry stalwart who had been obedient and on camera since her early teens, disappeared.
This isn’t about Bey’s solo career, which was reportedly engineered by Papa Knowles. It’s about everything that happened afterwards, from Beyoncé’s professional break with her father in 2011, to her emergence as the final word in everything from music to fashion to intersectional feminism. Beyoncé is a new kind of superstar, as ultimately enigmatic and unknowable as she is adored. Her product is invaluable enough that it allows her ridiculous, unheard-of degrees of secrecy and control.
In 2015, Beyoncé’s publicist told The New York Times that Beyoncé had not answered a direct interview question in over a year. While other celebrities enjoy a symbiotic relationship with press outlets and tabloids, trading sound bites for free publicity and baby photos for cash, Beyoncé is as self-sufficient as her girl power lyrics purport. The more desperate the world becomes for all things Beyoncé, the more the star retreats behind her curated content. Every aspect of her image, from Lemonade to her HBO documentary to her Instagram, claims to be confessional but remains cold. Beyoncé invites her fans into her artistic vision but not her personal interiority; everything we know about her as an artist just serves to raise more questions about her as a person—a mother, a daughter, a friend, a wife. No other star out there today has managed to achieve this level of hypervisibility without sacrificing any degree of control. We see Beyoncé as she wants to be seen; never in candid interviews, always on message or on stage.
Of course, Beyoncé’s unique form of isolationism must be considered in light of her perilous position as a black woman in the spotlight. On the intersection of race and gender, the scrutiny and high standards assigned to a celebrity increase exponentially. The New York Times described her inaccessibility “as a hard-won privilege, a reclamation of privacy not historically accorded to African-American women.”
In the wake of 2014’s Elevatorgate, Beyoncé broke down all communication with the press. She refused to engage with any rumors surrounding her husband’s alleged infidelity, even as accusations accumulated and media coverage of the affairs became omnipresent. Her artistic reckoning with her marriage, Lemonade, released almost two years after the incident, creates artistic excellence out of emotional wreckage. Beyoncé’s alchemy seems designed to counter accusations of powerlessness or humiliation; the Beyoncé of 2016 is inarguably more significant and stronger than any previous iteration.
Hillary Clinton’s career has followed a similarly upward trajectory after the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Like Beyoncé, Clinton interacted with the incident on her own terms, making an unlikely decision to stay with her husband, while insisting on a degree of privacy despite the embarrassingly public nature of her husband’s affair. She similarly waited until she had complete control over her message, in her 2004 memoir Living History, to speak to the continuation of her marriage, describing it as one of “the most difficult decisions I have made in my life.” Both women have been criticized for their reactions to infidelity, with accusations ranging from blatant careerism to outdated, retro domesticity. In addition to being two women forever tied to their tumultuous marriages, Clinton and Beyoncé have another relationship in common—their tortured ties to the press and the public.
There are times when Hillary Clinton and Beyoncé seem to be taking a page from the same PR handbook. As Clinton prepares to face off against Donald Trump in the general election, the famously elusive politician is allowing herself, for the briefest of moments, to be the tiniest bit reachable. A recent Washington Post one-on-one is billed, somewhat passive aggressively, as “her first Post interview since launching her campaign 14 months ago.” She approaches reporters reticently, largely eschewing the political tradition of candid off the record conversations, and all but ignoring the reporters dutifully following her campaign trail. A recent New York Magazine profile sums up the presidential nominee’s take on the Fourth Estate: “Clinton hates the press.”
Long plagued by accusations of defensiveness and inauthenticity, Clinton is anything but off the cuff. Even her small bursts of spunk are controlled; millennial-friendly moves like her recent “Delete your account” Twitter clap back to Donald Trump read like the products of rounds of target audience testing. Her “personality” is constructed, carefully planned, and doled out in small doses. Public opinion holds that this barrier between Clinton and her prospective voters is a political weakness. If this is the case, then why does Clinton seem to be deliberately eschewing candor, leaving behind those Ellen appearances in favor of Beyoncé’s live performances only, no impromptu interviews, and no-nonsense approach?
The answer, like most conversations about Hillary Clinton—and Beyoncé, for that matter—might come down to gender. For male politicians, authenticity and charisma are assets. Come Election Day, Americans are looking for a relatable and genuine dude. How else to explain the appeal of Donald Trump, a man whose likability seems to stem from a degree of transparency otherwise known as TMI. Whether he’s offering unapologetically racist remarks, talking about the size of his penis, or even lying, Donald Trump is undeniably himself. He dominated the other Republican candidates not through formal experience or intelligence, but through the appeal of his informality. In spite of Trump’s unpredicted success and this unique political moment, Clinton seems even less inclined than ever to open up.
An easy explanation for Clinton’s rote responses is her inability to perform otherwise. The former Secretary of State seems well aware of her own limitations; during a primary debate, Clinton explained, “I am not a natural politician, in case you haven’t noticed, like my husband or President Obama.” The New York Magazine profile describes her as “uneasy with the press and ungainly on the stump.” Like Beyoncé, Clinton’s unease, her inability to entertain a “natural” relationship with the press or the public, has garnered accusations of defensiveness, secrecy, and robotic-ness (and unlike Bey, Hillary does have an obligation to engage with the press). However, there’s an argument to be made that this armor isn’t a coincidence or a failing, but rather a conscious decision.
While both women have been cast as untouchable and unfeeling, something other than human, this categorization might be preferable to the alternative. Over two decades in the public eye elicits an unfathomable level of scrutiny for the female and famous. Young voters might only know Clinton as an unlikable, reptilian candidate, but this is only the latest character assassination Clinton has had to face throughout her long career. As a political wife and a politician, Clinton has been accused of everything from radical feminism to domestic servility. Accusations of unknowability pale in comparison to the wealth of slurs that Clinton has accrued, tied to everything from her marriage to her diplomacy to her pantsuits.
Sometimes it seems like the longer Clinton sticks around, the more unlikable she becomes. According to a CBS poll, 52 percent of Americans have an unfavorable opinion of Clinton—a record high for a Democratic nominee. But when it comes to a woman attempting to make the public like her, anecdotal evidence suggests that the game is rigged. Sexism goes hand in hand with over-scrutiny, suggesting that no matter how transparent or candid Hillary Clinton becomes, she just can’t win. While voters might purport to want to know their candidates, the more a woman exposes herself to the public, the more she risks becoming even less liked. If Clinton attempts to mimic Trump in anger and outrage, she’ll be accused of being shrill or unfeminine. Women who cry are too emotional; women who brag are too vain. Gender, particularly womanhood, carries with it a Pandora’s box of impossible and paradoxical standards. As first lady, Clinton was called too driven, not dedicated enough to her husband. As a potential presidential candidate, she’s hobbled by accusations that she’s weighed down by her husband, that she will surrender her power to his political vision.
The irony is that, as Clinton faces off against one of the most toxic politicians of all time, her inability—the inability of any powerful woman—to be easily liked threatens to undermine her unparalleled competency. Clinton knows that a rhetorical misstep or awkward interview will occupy more news cycles than any substantive policy reform or invocation of her unimpeachable experience. Even if she stays silent, she’ll still face more scrutiny and skepticism than a male candidate ever would, in articles critiquing her appearance or tallying up the cost of her campaign wardrobe. The fact that Clinton once deliberately retreated into drab dressing to effectively minimize the conversation around her apparel mirrors Clinton’s larger strategy: fly under the radar, in the hopes that Donald Trump will prove himself to be more abhorrent than she is unlikable.
So the two most famous women alive have all but given up on any form of open, genuine dialogue. Burned by intimacies both private and public, they have learned that no admission or action will ever be good enough, that they will be stereotyped, scrutinized, and picked apart ten times worse than their male counterparts. Of course, the existence of women like Hillary Clinton and Beyoncé is some sort of feminist victory. But it is important to complicate this moment with an acknowledgment of the pervasive sexism that has made these women who they are today. With a combination of talent, prowess, and calculation, they are inspirational but simultaneously uninspiring—single-minded control freaks. The face of female power has never been so controlled, so uncandid. Voters or fans in search of intimacy or authenticity, a female presidential candidate with a personal Twitter account or a pop idol who’s transparent with the tabloids, should reconsider the amount of privacy they allow their idols, and the requisite amount of defensiveness a woman builds up after two decades in the public eye.