Jenna Bush Hager on Feminism, Dad’s Painting, and the Obama Girls
The former first daughter to George W. Bush and current Today show correspondent sat down at SXSW to talk the ‘F’ word, online bullying, and Jeb’s 2016 run (not really).
We live in strange, schadenfreude-heavy times. An epoch when a harmless tweet about a college basketball team can lead to threats of rape and corporal violence against a famous actress, or an idiotic pro football player can sexually harass an underage first daughter via Instagram. While Jenna Bush Hager was spared the hypercritical lens of social media during her formative years, she knows a thing or two about scrutiny.
Hager, 33, is the daughter of former President George W. Bush and First Lady Laura Bush, and granddaughter to former president George H.W. Bush. She even warned her father not to run for president in 2000, fearing the effect it would have on her and her family. Since her father’s presidency, she’s worked with UNICEF, as a part-time charter school teacher, and currently serves as both the editor-at-large for Southern Living magazine, as well as a Today show correspondent.
At the 2015 edition of SXSW, Hager sat on a panel called “Gender in Media” as part of Neiman Marcus’s “Make Some Noise” sessions at the Austin festival—aiming to, they say, “Celebrate bold women with bold voices.” After her discussion, she sat down with The Daily Beast.
One of the topics of the “Gender in Media” panel you participated on today was the word “feminism,” and why that’s become a loaded term in recent years.
There is nothing wrong with the word “feminism.” Anyone that’s for women—which I am, as a woman, as the mother of a little girl, and as someone who’s worked with women all over the world, what’s wrong with supporting women? There’s nothing wrong with that. I would say I’m a feminist, and a proud one.
Right. I think the issue is the lack of education. All feminism really means is that you believe in equal rights for men and women. Period. But I think, for whatever reason, the word gives some narrow-minded men visions of bra-burning women.
My husband is proud that I’m a strong, working mother. And he understands that, as the mom, even though I’ve been gone for the entire week and I travel like crazy, that I have an equal partner, and you listen to people like Sheryl Sandberg talk about how you can “lean in,” but can have a strong man who’s OK with being an equal partner. I think he’s proud that I’m representing women, that I’m working, and that I’m a feminist. And as a father of a little girl, he too is one, because who wouldn’t want the same for their little girl?
And there’s this situation right now with Ashley Judd, where she posted a fairly innocuous tweet about an opposing team—she’s a huge Kentucky Wildcats basketball fan, of course—and then was called a “whore” and received tons of rape threats over Twitter. There’s a ton of strange vitriol online, and most of it seems to be aimed at women.
Yeah. I think technology does some important things, connecting people all over the world and allowing people to tell their stories, but at the same time, there’s an issue with online bullies—people that have this mask of technology, and nobody knows who they are. Last night, I was with some people and we said, “The last thing I would pay attention to would be the mean tweets,” because what’s the point? It’s something we’re going to have to navigate. It’s bad for people like Ashley Judd, but what about high school students, or middle school students who are being bullied online? That’s what really worries me, because I have a young daughter—people who don’t have as strong a voice as she does. So in the next couple of years, we’re going to have to navigate how we can use social media and technology to tell great stories, and to hush the meanness that it creates.
I’m sure you've had to deal with harassment more than most, since you were forced to live a big chunk of your life under a huge microscope as a first daughter. What were some of the toughest things you endured during that period?
Well, the good thing is that there wasn’t social media. I was raised in a way where friends, family, and the people that know you are what matters. They’re the ones who know who you really are, and can put you in check when you misbehave. I feel lucky that I can push out the negative noise, because I’ve always been taught that people who are saying hateful things don’t know you at all.
Were there specific incidents you recall though during those eight years as first daughter where you felt like you were being mistreated? We see some of this now with the strange nontroversy over the Obama daughters’ photos ending up on Instagram, and of course there were the terrible things Rush Limbaugh said about Chelsea Clinton. There is an awful history of people—really, men—treating first daughters terribly.
There is. Barbara and I are both unbelievably protective of Sasha and Malia, and of course Chelsea as well, because we realize that none of us ran for this job, and all of our parents want to protect their girls because we didn’t ask to be put in the spotlight. And we think [Sasha and Malia] are doing an incredible job. And now, eight years later, I’m sure there were things, but I was in college and starting my career, which everybody knows are pretty selfish times in your life. I was focusing on my journey at the time, which made it a little bit easier. Plus, the benefits far outweigh the negatives. I got to travel with my parents several times to Africa and witness the unveiling of PEPFAR, and I got to meet incredible authors, activists, and heroes of mine.
And you did get to make out on the roof of the White House.
Yes, exactly. [Laughs]
You know, you may have another family member running for president in 2016, which may potentially put the family under the spotlight again.
Ah, yeah. I honestly have no idea!
Let’s talk about your dad’s whole painting thing he’s got going on. A lot of people are fascinated and confused by this development.
He was not interested in art even the least bit. My mom, sister, and I love art and love going to see exhibits, and he read an essay that Winston Churchill wrote called “Painting as a Pastime,” and obviously when you leave a job as large as the President of the United States, even though he still works, you have a lot of time on your hands. He needed something to make his life more full, so it’s bizarre that painting was that thing! But he’s actually really good! He spends a lot of time doing it, but it’s very interesting, and he loves it.
Is there a portrait of you by dad hanging somewhere in your place?
He hasn’t painted me yet! I’m going to call him up right after this and ask! He’s painted my daughter a lot. He’s painted six paintings of her. And he’s painted my cat, my dog, and some landscapes. But I don’t know if I’d like that portrait… I’d be like, “Hey… I’m skinnier than that dad!”
Where do you lean politically?
I would say that one thing people don’t know about my parents, or wouldn’t assume about my parents—and I’m not sure why that is, but I get this sense—is that Barbara and I have been pretty vocal about certain issues where we may agree with them, like PEPFAR, and others which we may not. Something they did that I feel so appreciative of is they really wanted us to be curious, independent thinkers who have their own opinions. That’s sort of hard for people to believe. Because my parents are in politics, people want to assume that our politics are just like theirs. I don’t know why that is. But one thing I really appreciated about their parenting is they wanted us to have our own beliefs and be our own people, and I hope I can be like that too.