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A Feminist Analysis of Rodham - the Feature Film About Young Hillary Clinton

by Melissa Silverstein
May 20, 2013 11:09 AM
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The script Rodham by Young Il Kim has been one of the scripts on the recent Blacklist -- it came in 4th -- that has made significant buzz before it even starts production.  While we hoped when the buzz began that there would be some women on the team, we were none too pleased to read that James Ponsoldt director of Smashed and the upcoming Spectacular Now got the gig.

The script is making its way around town and we got our hands on it this weekend.

First, it was a good read.  It's about a woman, who is a lawyer, who is involved in an important piece of American history (the impeachment of Richard Nixon), who is competent, who is challenged and who very interesting and full of contradictions.

Now I know this is a work of fiction and we have seen the Clinton's fictionalized before namely in Primary Colors, but in that movie, while we knew it was the Clintons, their names were different.  Here they are Bill and Hillary Clinton, she in DC, he in Arkansas starting their lives as young professionals.  

I'm not sure we have ever seen a movie like this before.  A still living viable Presidential candidate, former Secretary of State, former Senator and First Lady.  We recently had The Iron Lady about Margaret Thatcher, but that film was released after she has retired and was already ill.  I guess we could use The Queen as some comparison but that's as close as we can get.

I wish I could say that I loved it from top to bottom.  I didn't.  There were things that made me cringe especially how the script handles feminism.  I know this is fiction but some of the moments seem a bit too far fetched and I hope they reign in some of the language.  Here are some examples:

When we meet Hillary at Yale she is described as a "hippie girl."  Bill Clinton is described as a "Viking."

Here's her full description:

"A blonde girl whose face is hidden behind an awful haircut and a hideous pair of Coke-Bottle glasses.  Her tie-dyed t-shirt has a faded "AuH20" on it.  She's the valedictorian of the "look-like-shit school of feminism."

So that's the first description of feminism in a movie about a feminist.

Then she goes on to diss the word ms saying that "it hurts her lips saying it", and incredibly in the same exchange where she disses the word ms she goes on to dream about becoming President of the US.

One of the big moments in the script is that Bill Clinton gets a phone call at Hillary's apartment (she was his weekend contact) asking him to be on the House Judiciary Committee looking at the impeachment of Richard Nixon.  He turns it down saying that he will be running for Congress from Arkansas (a surprise to her) and then she gets a same call to be a part of the committee and realizes that she came in second to her boyfriend and that just kills her.  It is a clear moment where she and the audience realize how sexist the world is.

There is also a laughable exchange between Hillary and her friends Betsey Wright and Sara Erman about a bra and how the wires dug into her (is that really needed?  does that humanize her?)

Betsey Wright becomes the villain of the piece trying to keep Hillary in DC and in politics while Bill Clinton is trying to get her to marry him and move to Arkansas.  She is conflicted to say the least.  Betsey Wright tries to tempt her and takes her into a meeting with all the top feminists at the National Women's Political Caucus office in DC which the film says doubles as the Ms. Magazine office.  

The scene is a feminist's wet dream.  Shirley Chisholm, Bella Abzug, Betty Friedan, Myrlie Evers and Gloria Steinem in a single room working on getting more women elected to office.  Betsey Wright is selling Hillary and trying to convince her of her future.  She says:

"Hillary Rodham will be a US Senator someday.  And our first female President."

But Bill Clinton is pissed that she took the job and says:

"You're going to listen to Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan over me?  They're using you for their feminist agenda, nothing more."

That old feminist agenda.   Destroyer of nations.

The film also creates a narrative that Hillary chose between rich William Weld and poor Bill Clinton, that she wrote Bill Clinton's campaign speeches while she was working 12 hours a day on the house judiciary committee, that when she first went to Arkansas Bill Clinton's mother Virginia put her in a prom like dress because she didn't like how she looked, that his brother Roger made awful comments about her sexuality and a potential relationship with her friend Betsey Wright (while he was doing bong hits), and most important that he gave her one of the most vital pieces to effectively subpoena additional tapes from Nixon which almost got her fired.

All in all it is a story about an ambitious woman who makes the decision that is right for her.  It's none of our business to judge anyone's decisions.  I think they really need to clean up some of the anti-feminist rhetoric in the screenplay.  I also think that they have should operate at a higher level of scrutiny since most of the people in the script are still working and still in politics.  It's one thing to make up stuff about someone who is retired or dead, but it's another thing to make up shit about someone who is still a viable political candidate.  

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More: Politics, Rodham, Feminism, Hillary Clinton

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  • No | May 29, 2013 12:06 PMReply

    Wait a minute! This is a film about a woman but written by a Korean, or Korean American, male and will be directed by a (white) male director and people don't think there's a problem with that? That it's a "good read" and then have a problem with how feminism is depicted?

  • Sounds of Cinema | May 20, 2013 2:59 PMReply

    It is ill advised to make judgments about a film based on whether it is good or bad for feminism (or any other kind of –ism). The function of a biopic is to tell a story that captures the essence of its subject and/or the meaning of that person’s life, whether it is flattering or not. If the young Hillary Clinton truly felt that feminism "hurts her lips saying it" then the filmmakers should portray her that way instead of trying to “fix” her history to fit a preconceived agenda. (I don’t know enough about Clinton’s personal history to judge if that is the case or not.)

    Also, it’s premature to make judgments about this film based on its original script. If it gets produced at all there may be significant changes instituted by the director, potential re-writers, producers, and actors. Who knows if the finished product will actually resemble Young Il Kim’s original work? All that ultimately matters is what ends up on the screen.

  • Sounds of Cinema | May 21, 2013 6:02 PM

    You’re absolutely right that we should think about the broader impact of stories but that is not the criticism I am making. What is ill advised is to demand that a movie adhere to an ideological lens regardless of whether it tells the truth (that is, truth with a capital T) about its subject. If the movie distorts the reality of who Hillary Clinton was/is, that is dishonest and sloppy and the filmmakers should be criticized for that. But starting from a position that this story must role model feminist ideals is a recipe for a hagiography, and that rarely ends well.

    As far as reviewing the screenplay is concerned, I find this bothersome because it is part of a broader problem in film criticism in which people review and analyze unproduced scripts, trailers, online featurettes, work prints, ten-minute opening clips, etc. This allows writers to generate copy for websites like this one but it also makes them complicit with the Hollywood marketing machine. These pre-film reviews also dilute our ability to make a judgment about the film once it comes out.

  • If I may... | May 20, 2013 9:27 PM

    1. Actually, it is REALLY important to think about the impact the stories we tell have on feminism, especially in the wake of, oh, i don't know, the current ways women are treated in this industry and around the world.

    Alyssa Rosenberg said it best when she said, "It's okay for pop culture to have ideas, in fact, it's necessary. And pop culture can be deeper, and more exciting, the action and the relationships it portrays can have higher stakes, when those ideas are about how the world should be run, about what conditions are necessary for eqality, and stability and justice."

    This is a type of movie very rarely made, despite women currently occupy over half of the world. So yes, women want it done right. It's never just a story.

    2. Yes, a biopic, but this is not a biopic. It's largely fictional. So there's that. If someone wrote a script in which MLK was all, "I'm not all about the whole equal rights for black and white folks thing", that would be fiction, as well as a slap in the face to the civil rights movement. So, yeah...

    3. I have read the script, and I absolutely agree with what was written in this article, as did my twenty-year-old female intern, as did most women I've talked to who have read the script.

    4. This is hollywood. Unless you live under a rock, you know what is most likely going to end up on screen - dumb, pandering, emotionally manipulative garbage that is formulated to make money.

  • DJ | May 20, 2013 12:07 PMReply

    "A still living viable Presidential candidate, former Secretary of State, former Senator and First Lady. We recently had The Iron Lady about Margaret Thatcher, but that film was released after she has retired and was already ill. I guess we could use The Queen as some comparison but that's as close as we can get."

    I think "W" by Stone sort of passes your smell test.

  • Melissa Silverstein | May 20, 2013 12:11 PM

    Totally right. Good call.

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