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'Hillary' reminds us of all the feminist progress -- as well as the remaining pain

It's less an inspirational story than a cautionary tale. Because surely Nanette Burstein's four-part Hulu docuseries "Hillary" -- about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- ends up reminding viewers how little has changed for women who have an eye toward the White House.

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Analysis by Brandon Tensley
CNN — It's less an inspirational story than a cautionary tale. Because surely Nanette Burstein's four-part Hulu docuseries "Hillary" -- about former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton -- ends up reminding viewers how little has changed for women who have an eye toward the White House.

The series itself ultimately broadcasts a triumphal narrative -- that gender doesn't work against all Clinton's political descendants as it did against her. But it was hard to see Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the last woman presenting a serious 2020 presidential bid, end her campaign on Thursday and not detect echoes of the past.

In structure, "Hillary" is a fairly straightforward biography, beginning with Clinton's suburban Illinois adolescence and her years as a mark-making student at Yale Law School (fittingly, the title of the first episode is "The Golden Girl"). Throughout, the series is embroidered with a variety of scenes from Clinton's 2016 presidential campaign.

From early on in her life, Clinton was aware -- made aware -- of the particular disdain reserved for ambitious women. She recalls the braying of her male counterparts who lambasted her when she sat for the Law School Admission Test in the late 1960s: "What are you doing here?" "You don't belong here." "You can't go to law school." "If you get into law school and take my place and I get sent to Vietnam and die, it's your fault!" (Clinton says, archly, that this last remark was her favorite.)

Outrageous sentiments, of course. But they were of a piece with the prevailing socio-political mores of a period that was both on the brink of radical change -- the civil rights movement, the anti-war movement, the gay rights movement, the women's liberation movement -- and resistant to it.

"In those days, you got no points for being emotional. You'd get no points for trying to fight back or defend. You'd just put your head down. You worked hard. You got to where you were going despite whatever obstacles were put up," Clinton says of the era that made her.

The series revisits how, in key ways, Clinton's political life, which has often crisscrossed her personal life, has been defined by this gendered point system.

She's earned points for sticking to the script: (eventually) taking Bill's last name to assist his 1982 Arkansas gubernatorial bid, softening her appearance to look more "feminine."

And she's lost points for defying it: saying in 1992 that she chased her professional goals when she could've "stayed at home and baked cookies and had teas" (she spent years apologizing for this quip), showing anger on the infrequent occasions she's failed to suppress it.

Anger. Perhaps more than any other term, that's what's been tagged to Clinton. This was especially apparent during her 2016 campaign. While Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and then-candidate Donald Trump could vent their spleen and be seen as genuine -- earnestly channeling the frustrations of their respective bases -- any such emotionality from Clinton registered as calculated, cold.

"(Clinton) doesn't rant and rave, she's careful. And then that's read as inauthentic; it means that she doesn't understand how upset people are, or the pain people are in, because she's not angry in the way those guys are angry," Dan Schwerin, who was the director of speechwriting for Clinton's 2016 bid, told the journalist Rebecca Traister for a 2017 profile of the former secretary of state. "So she must be OK with the status quo because she's not angry."

"Hillary" compellingly charts the sexist waters Clinton has had to navigate over the decades. But its conclusion is decidedly uplifting.

"I don't know that we're ever ready for the person who has to blaze the trail. We're ready for the people who come after them, because somebody else has created enough space for them to not have to shrink to fit," longtime Clinton adviser Cheryl Mills says, following a moving montage of female politicians such as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, California Sen. Kamala Harris, Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and Warren. "Instead, there's plenty of room now for them to walk in all their glory."

For all those exultant dimensions, however, to watch "Hillary" at this specific time -- as opposed to if it'd been released, say, even a few months ago -- is to feel it resonate in a distinctly terrible way. And that's because if this past week has proved anything, it's that America still has a problem with intelligent women looking to win the White House.

The 2020 Democratic presidential race began with a record number of women vying for the nomination. And yet, what started as a historic field has devolved into one that hardly stands out, as all the top-tier female candidates have departed. In December, Harris, only the second black woman ever elected to the US Senate, suspended her campaign. This week, Klobuchar and Warren did the same.

No one would argue that these candidates' campaigns were perfect. Still, it became clear as the primary season intensified that the more competitive women running faced a degree of interrogation that's impossible to disentangle from the dusty, age-old impulse to punish "threatening" women -- that is, women who unapologetically seek power.

Warren, who briefly led the 2020 Democratic primary field, offers a sterling example of how women in positions like hers are confronted with sexism dressed up as scrutiny.

During the October Democratic debate, she was clobbered for her "Medicare for All" proposal, saying that "costs will go down" without articulating how. The more moderate candidates used that moment to undermine Warren. But the same sort of specificity wasn't asked -- or even expected, really -- of her rivals, including Sanders, who's refused to elaborate on how he'd pay for his own "Medicare for All" plan.

Worse still, Warren knew that she couldn't talk directly about the race's double standards -- the tendency to twist her competence into accusations of being a "know-it-all" and a "narcissist."

"Gender in this race, you know, that is the trap question for every woman. If you say, 'Yeah, there was sexism in this race,' everyone says, 'Whiner.' And if you say, 'No, there was no sexism,' about a bazillion women think, 'What planet do you live on?' " Warren said on Thursday, reflecting on her exit from the Democratic field.

But the most acute sting she seemed to feel from bowing out was what it might signal to the countless young girls she met on the campaign trail.

"One of the hardest parts of this is all those pinky promises, and all those little girls who are going to have to wait four more years," Warren said.

In "Hillary," just before the swing into that hopeful montage, Clinton recalls her reaction following her 2016 concession speech; it fits more with the current moment.

"Immediately after I got off the stage, after I'd hugged people and held people who were crying," she says, "finally, Bill and I left, and I just collapsed in the back of the van. I was like: What just happened?"

It's the same question many people are probably asking as the options for the next president narrow, realistically, to three white men. And they're likely finding the same answer -- that gender has a lot to do with it.

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