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Hillary Clinton’s likability problem, as explained by Gilmore Girls and Dawson’s Creek

Democratic Presidential Nominee Hillary Clinton Campaigns In Nevada And Arizona Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
Constance Grady is a senior correspondent on the Culture team for Vox, where since 2016 she has covered books, publishing, gender, celebrity analysis, and theater.

There’s a scene in the second season of Gilmore Girls that so perfectly encapsulates Hillary Clinton’s predicament in this election that it’s stunning.

Paris Geller, the driven class genius with dishwater blonde hair and a maniacal glint in her eye, is running for student body president. She meets with her minions/best friends, Madeline and Louise, to go over her polling numbers.

The good news: The student body is convinced, and rightly so, that Paris is by far the most qualified candidate and if elected would be the most competent president.

The bad news: They don’t like her.

PARIS: Well, fine, they don’t like me. Big deal, right? I’m still most competent.

LOUISE: Yes, but when asked if the likability issue would affect their voting choice, almost 100 percent said yes.

PARIS: That’s crazy. You mean people would rather vote for a moronic twink who they liked over someone who could actually do the job?

LOUISE: Sad but true.

PARIS: Well, what do I do?

MADELINE: Hope for a sex scandal?

Hillary Clinton undoubtedly watches this scene weekly, winces, and toasts Paris with a scotch neat, murmuring, “I feel you, girl.”

The narrative that has emerged about Clinton over the course of this election describes her as too ambitious, too power-hungry, too much of a Washington insider. It matter-of-factly states that people just don’t like her. Like Paris, Clinton tries too hard to achieve her goals; she wants it so much you can taste it, and many people find that scary and off-putting.

This is not to say there can’t be valid reasons for someone to dislike Clinton. But an enormous part of the narrative that surrounds her isn’t attached to specific things she’s done; it centers on a vague sense of dislike and distrust. Hillary Clinton, the story goes, is just not likable, no matter what she does, just like Paris Geller.

Paris and Hillary are both the kind of woman we’ve been taught to dislike. On shows like Gilmore Girls and other teen soaps of the WB’s glory days, ambitious girls who clearly work hard are always foils to the girls we’re supposed to like. The girls we are supposed to like, the heroines, are always smart, but not in a threatening way; ambitious, but not in a showy way; beautiful, but effortlessly so. They’re perfect, and part of what makes them perfect is that they don’t try.

For a WB heroine, all the labor of being smart, ambitious, and beautiful is invisible

The classic WB heroine — most iconically epitomized in Gilmore Girls’ Rory Gilmore and Dawson’s Creek’s Joey Potter — is smart, and she plans to go to a good college, but she’s not, like, intense about it, not the way her ambitious blonde foil is. So Joey Potter studies, mostly offscreen, while Andie is so obsessed with going to Harvard that she cheats on the PSATs. Rory Gilmore gets good grades, mostly offscreen, while Paris yells at a soup kitchen employee who won’t let her volunteer over Thanksgiving so she can put community service on her Harvard application.

The WB heroine has goals, but she doesn’t want to be aggressive about making the effort required to achieve them. Instead, she’s quietly deserving in the right place at the right time, and good things are handed to her. So while Paris campaigns to become editor of the Yale Daily News, she ends up flaming out and getting kicked off the staff. Rory would never be so bold as to campaign to become Paris’s replacement — of course not — but her co-workers note how quietly deserving she is, and they decide to give her the spot. She doesn’t even have to ask for it.

The WB heroine is nearly always brunette, doe-eyed, and beautiful. She doesn’t wear any obvious makeup or have obvious highlights in her hair: She is a natural beauty. That’s in direct contrast to her foil and frenemy, who is usually blonde and always either high-maintenance and manicured or plain and mousy.

Joey Potter and Rory Gilmore Warner Bros.

So the pilot of Dawson’s Creek sees Joey snidely asking one of her blonde foils, Jen (Joey has a minimum of three blonde foils, and probably more depending on how you’re counting), what color hair dye she uses. Joey herself, meanwhile, is too innocent and naive to know how to use lipstick properly.

And one Gilmore Girls episode sees a just-awoken Paris in frumpy nightgown and frizzy hair, her face dotted with zit cream, staring in horror at a Rory who looks adorable in pink pajamas, with sleek hair and glowing skin. (The joke of the scene is that Rory, unlike Paris, was expecting to be woken up and dressed for it — but she doesn’t look any different in that scene than she does in any other that features her going to bed or waking up.) “That’s how you look when you go to sleep?” Paris demands. “Nothing in my life is fair.”

The perfection of the WB heroine has to be effortless in order to be valuable

The fact that the WB heroine doesn’t have to try to be beautiful and smart — doesn’t, in fact, think of herself as beautiful and smart — is key to her appeal. On Dawson’s Creek, it is explicitly the thing that makes Joey so alluring, as one of her other foils explains:

Because you're beautiful and you don't know it. Because you're smart and you don't believe it. You're the kind of girl that guys never get over. Joey, you're the kind of girl that other girls get compared to.

There are a few elements of this quote worth thinking about. First, there’s the fact that Joey doesn’t know she’s smart and pretty, and that she doesn’t put any visible effort into becoming smart and pretty. That’s what makes her intelligence and her beauty so compelling: It’s effortless, and that makes it valuable.

And second, there’s the fact that Joey’s value is expressed in comparison with other girls. For us to really feel the impact of the WB heroine’s effortless, thoughtless perfection, we have to see her in contrast to less valuable girls, less likable girls: girls who try.

The girls who try to be smart, who try to achieve their goals, who try to be attractive, those girls are the villains. They know their worth, and they make no apologies for their ambitions. They’re not perfect. They’re not valuable. They are, in fact, scary and off-putting.

They are Hillary Clinton, one of the most qualified presidential candidates in history, being forced to treat her 30 years of public service as a liability, being asked again and again to apologize for her ambition. Hillary Clinton is the sad blonde antagonist on a WB soap opera, and that is part of why people find her unlikable and scary: because that’s the type of story we’ve been trained to tell about women like her.

In the end, Paris wins her school election. But to do it, she has to join forces with an unthreatening and likable running mate, someone who will neutralize Paris’s scary and effortful ambitions. She brings in Rory Gilmore.