Thursday, January 10, 2008

Teenage Wasteland

Gail Collins has yet another theory as to why Hillary Clinton won the New Hampshire primary.

Everybody is going to have a story about why the gender gap erupted in New Hampshire, why female voters rallied to Hillary’s side after the horrendous week when she lost Iowa, was cornered in the weekend debate, told that she was unlikable on national television, and then teared up when a sympathetic voter asked her how she held up under it all. Do women Obama’s age look at him and see the popular boy who never talked to them in high school? Did they relate to Clinton’s strategy of constantly reminding her audiences that she’s been working for reform for 35 years? Barack’s not going to be able to top that unless he can prove he was an agent of change in elementary school.

My own favorite theory is that this week, Hillary was a stand-in for every woman who’s overdosed on multitasking. They grabbed at the opportunity to have kids/go back to school/start a business/become a lawyer. But there are days when they can’t meet everybody’s needs and the men in their lives — loved ones and otherwise — make them feel like failures or towers of self-involvement. Clinton’s failed attempt to suck it up hit home.

The women whose heart went out to Hillary knew that it wasn’t rational. She asked for this race, and if she was exhausted, the other candidates were, too. (John McCain is 71 and tired and nobody felt sorry for him.) The front-runner always gets ganged up on in debates. If her campaign was in shambles, it was her job to fix it or take the consequences. But for one moment, women knew just how Hillary felt, and they gave her a sympathy vote. It wasn’t a long-term commitment, just a brief strike by the sisters against their overscheduled world.

Or it could just have been a better get-out-the-vote operation.

I’ve been a student of theatre for most of my adult life, especially the area of dramatic literature. I’ve focused on those plays that were written in what we call the post-war era, studying the works of Arthur Miller, Tennessee Williams, Robert Anderson, William Inge, the later works of Eugene O’Neill, and more recent authors such as Lanford Wilson. I’ve come to the conclusion that these authors are using the stage like a psychiatrist’s couch; to tell the stories of their youth and childhood in an effort to recapture or make right the slights and traumas of that time in their life.

It makes for great theatre, and it reveals something about us as humans: we spend a great deal of our time as adults trying to rewrite the past. Those were the years when we are discovering the world and we are experiencing new things (not to mention the changes our bodies go through; we are literally going through a metamorphosis that would give Kafka a run for his money). They are amazing, scary, thrilling, and imprinting events, and very often what happens to us when we are twelve or sixteen will mark us, for good or bad, for the rest of our lives. It is no wonder that the advertising world focuses on the mythology of the perfect human form as being a curvaceous high school cheerleader and her well-muscled boyfriend with the perfect teeth and the cool car. So this has to be the explanation why the op-ed columnists like Ms. Collins or Maureen Dowd convey their observations in these terms. Not only is it a common denominator that just about every reader will understand, it taps into the core of our being. And when they talk about the shame of being the unpopular kid or just being not cool, and how that defines the terms of the perception of the candidates, everyone gets it. It’s really easy to label each candidate based on the archetypes of high school: the nerd, the drama queen, the prep, the grind, the jock, the stoner, the slacker, the suck-up, and on and on.

So it isn’t really any wonder why everyone who has something to say about the current presidential campaign and the interactions between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama or between her and her audience — and how the voters respond to her — are doing it in the terms that everyone identifies with and everyone, regardless of gender, socio-economic background, or sexual orientation understands: teenage angst. We may all be adults, but we think in the terms that made us what we are: the intense rivalries and nearly bipolar emotions that dominated our adolescence, and when the discussions turn into arguments and then flashes of temper and exasperation show up, it sounds more like a fight in the hallway rather than a dispassionate debate on how best to reform the tax code. The final irony is that when you are a child the one thing you want most in the world is to grow up, become an adult, and leave all the angst and trauma behind you…only to find out that once you do, you will spend the rest of your life trying to get it back.

It makes for good drama, but I’m not so sure it’s the way to elect a president. The devolution of the discussion down to the point that it’s getting ridiculous (“Hillary won because she cried”) makes us forget that we’re not electing the homecoming queen, and actually asking people in a serious poll who they’d like to have a beer with — the allegedly adult version of who you’d like to be your best friend — should not be the basis for whom we entrust with the nuclear launch code.