Hillary and Chelsea Clinton don’t cry in Gutsy, their new, eight-part AppleTV+ docuseries, in which they visit with women who fit that title description. At least, the Clintons don’t cry on camera. Which is a strong choice, given how many of their subjects’ stories boil down to the same challenge: to overcome being hated by people who don’t know them, simply because they’re women. (Hmm, wonder why Hillary and Chelsea are interested in that?)
“There were certainly times I welled up,” the elder Clinton said in a joint video interview with her daughter. “But we wanted to focus on the women telling their stories. We didn’t want it to be about us.”
The series begins streaming Friday. On Saturday, Hillary and Chelsea will appear on stage at the Toronto International Film Festival, to discuss both Gutsy and the world premiere of In Her Hands, a documentary they produced that follows Zarifa Ghafari, the youngest female mayor of Afghanistan, in the months leading up to the Taliban takeover.
Hillary, who is 74, wore a chartreuse jacket over a black top and pants; Chelsea, 42, wore a black dress with a ruffled V-neck. In our interview, as in the series, they were easy with one another, frequently turning to the other for confirmation, smiling at the other’s enthusiasms. “Hillary,” by the way, is how the 67th U.S. Secretary of State introduces herself – or maybe I should say “Hillary!” because that’s how she exclaims it in the series when she meets her guests, strategically bombarding them with Friendly Lady-ness to blast away any jitters.
It took me a while to notice how often Gutsy’s subjects talk about being hated – among them, a woman who became a cop after police shot her 10 times, while she was pregnant; a sexual abuse survivor who found peace through mountaineering; an ex-white supremacist who is now a deprogrammer and river raft guide (both Clintons were most nervous to meet her); and two of the Little Rock Nine, who as Black teenagers endured daily, vicious abuse when they integrated U.S. public schools in 1957.
At first, I was overwhelmed by a slightly different aspect of the subjects’ stories: how hard they had to struggle to be who they are; their lifelong battle to claim what they want. Then I realized the struggle exists because of the hate.
“I knew this had been the case for millennia,” Hillary says. “But I was a little surprised how current it still is. It’s 2022, there’s so much information out in the world about diversity and difference, yet so many people still feel unmoored and abandoned and alone.”
“I was less surprised,” Chelsea says flatly.
Gutsy the series sprang from a bestseller the Clintons co-authored in 2019, The Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience, which in turn sprang from conversations the two have had since Chelsea could talk. “When I was in school, I didn’t learn about many women,” Hillary says. “The names that should have been included were absent.” So she made a point of talking to her daughter about women who inspired her. Now Chelsea does the same with her daughter and two sons, “because boys need women role models who are as galvanizing and motivating as the male role models that for all of history we’ve put in front of children,” Chelsea says.
For the Clintons, “gutsy” calls to mind resilience and perseverance. Unlike “brave,” which suggests a discrete episode of courage, “gutsy” is a state of being. “And not only for your own purpose, but also for others,’” Chelsea says. “You’re doing something because in your guts, in your marrow, you know it’s right. It’s visceral.”
Chelsea was 6 when she first realized her mother was gutsy: Bill Clinton was running for re-election as Arkansas Governor, and he and Hillary staged a mock-debate to prepare Chelsea for the hatred that would come at them. “I remember being so upset, listening to these unkind things being said about my mom,” Chelsea recalls. “But there she was, getting up every day and doing her work.”
That’s another question that percolates through Gutsy: Do you “get used to” being hated? Or refuse to? Hillary Clinton is arguably the most qualified candidate to ever run for U.S. president (and she won the popular vote). Yet she had to concede to the least qualified, and then watch him do his worst to break democracy. How is she not bitter?
“Because I know it eats away at you,” Hillary replies. “I learned that lesson from one of the greatest people I’ve ever been privileged to meet, Nelson Mandela. When he walked out of prison after 27 years, he told me, he had to leave his hate and bitterness behind, because otherwise he would still be a prisoner.
“That had such a huge impact on my thinking,” she continues. “When you lose in politics, and it’s a fair fight, you accept it and move on. But when you’re in a situation where it’s upside down and backwards and it doesn’t make sense and there’s weird stuff happening, you have to fight really hard not to give in to being a victim. You get up and you go on.”
Being gutsy isn’t just about “falling from the heights of having earned more votes but not being president,” she says. “It’s also about, say, being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse finally realizing you can make peace with yourself and deal with your trauma. Unfair things happen to people every second of every day. Part of what Chelsea and I wanted to exemplify was our own resilience, our own willingness to keep going, and use the attention that we gather to shine it on other people’s.”
The series and its co-hosts are unapologetically earnest, which in our cynical age is a kind of gutsiness, too. “Earnestness and sincerity have been devalued in the age of social media, in the age of outrageous behaviour, of reality TV performers becoming the heads of government,” Hillary says, adding pointedly, “We are well aware of that.
“Both Chelsea and I err on the side of earnestness,” she goes on. “It really matters to us what gets done. So we wanted to show the hard work it takes to be gutsy. There’s nothing flashy about it. And that resilience is as exciting as anything I can imagine.”
There are some tense moments on the series, as when a guest asks Hillary about something uncomfortable from her own political (disproportionate incarceration of Black men) or personal (Bill’s infidelity) past. But she charges on: “Nothing was off limits.” Chelsea, too, is open about how painful it was as a child to be the butt of international jokes. But despite the hatred, neither have flinched from working in the public eye.
“It’s what we like to do and feel called to do, what we sense our purpose is,” Hillary says. “When you care about something, you’ve got to get in there and speak out. With that comes blowback. As my great icon Eleanor Roosevelt used to say, ‘Growing skin as thick as the hide of rhino is what’s required for a woman in the public arena.’” And as Gutsy demonstrates, for a woman, period.
Special to The Globe and Mail
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