Skip to main content

Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

On the cover of a new political biography, her blond hair is swept off her face, sleek. She wears a red blazer, simple gold jewellery. There's a hint of a smile, nothing more. She looks out to the right, to the future (one imagines) and what it might hold.

Above her three-quarter profile, set against a matte black background, is the simple title of the book: HRC.

At a glance, it might read as HER. Yeah, her, Hillary Rodham Clinton. The HRC initials are not drawn in a curlicue, girlish monogram. They are direct, all business, sans-serif. The image of Clinton has clearly been thought out. It's real. You see those wrinkles, that neck she could feel bad about. And it's commanding. The cover of the book has one clear message: She is a force to be reckoned with, one who has learned a lot, who has found her voice and her brand and who has proven herself as a formidable stateswoman after serving for four years as U.S. secretary of state.

It may be two years away, but speculation about the 2016 presidential election is heating up south of the border – and much of the attention is focused on Clinton and whether she will take up the mantle her supporters are eagerly holding out for her as the presumed front-runner for the Democratic presidential nomination. Her own memoir about her years as secretary of state is due out this summer. But the fascination is not just because of her potential candidacy. (Recently, a New York Times/CBS News poll revealed that 82 per cent of Democrats want her to run.) It's because of her newly revealed character.

There was a time in the sport known as Hillary-watching when discussion about her involved hairbands, bangs and pantsuits – more style over substance – but that has changed dramatically in the last six years. Her defeat in the 2008 Democratic primary was her political nadir, having run what some called a "stodgy" campaign – a slight that suggested a sort of matronly uncoolness compared to the effortless, youthful fluidity of Barack Obama. But she has made a remarkable comeback. Emerging now is a portrait of a complex leader. And perhaps because of that, there's a new, confident tone to some of the language used about her.

In a recent cover story for The New York Times Magazine, Clinton's period of deliberation over running for the Democratic presidential nomination was referred to as her "is she or isn't she" interim, a play on the famous Clairol slogan "Does She or Doesn't She?" The fact that the piece was written by a woman, Amy Chozick, made the line powerful in its expression of women's confident self-irony. You only make fun of a dated message about grooming habits – when choices for women were more limited – if it's obvious that much has changed.

But if the New York Times story was a serious look at the socio-political universe that Clinton and her husband inhabit, it wasn't without controversy – thank the image of Hillary on the cover for that. It posited the notion of Planet Hillary and depicted her face as a flesh-covered sphere. Some commentators called it demeaning and sexist, while others considered it a "legitimate Dadaist masterpiece." Lauren Kern, deputy NYT Magazine editor, responded by saying that "it might not be flattering in physicality but it is in concept. She is an icon. It shows her power."

Appearance issues die hard, I guess. You would think that if Clinton is to be judged on the merits of her tenacity, her intelligence and her gravitational pull, we should not be so touchy about superficial details. The reality is that sometimes you look good and sometimes you don't. That applies to men as well as women. Get over it. And if women are always focused on how attractive they look in photographs or other representations, doesn't that simply underscore the lookism they abhor?

HRC, co-authored by Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes, paints a glowing portrait of a fiercely loyal, determined secretary of state, who worked hard to become the President's ally after being loathed by his camp in the aftermath of the primary. Portrayed as someone who never wanted to frame her political ambitions as an important advancement for feminism, who wanted her competency to be judged as a man's would be, she is nonetheless beginning to understand how her gender can give her an advantage. One of the most powerful and surprising agents that helped shift public perception of her leadership style while secretary of state happened spontaneously on social media. The Texts From Hillary Tumblr page, a series of faux messages, took off after a photograph of Clinton wearing sunglasses and looking down at her BlackBerry was taken onboard a government airplane. The photograph was not particularly flattering in that magazine– y, perfectly styled way we have grown accustomed to seeing images of women. It was real. And it was kind of cool. The meme, based on that shot of her texting, made her look badass – in a fun way.

Clinton ran with it. Last summer, on her Twitter bio, she poked fun at herself and embraced the jokes people make about her appearance. Using the Texts From Hillary photo of herself for her profile picture, she wrote: "Wife, mom, lawyer, women & kids advocate, FLOAR, FLOTUS, US senator, SecState, author, dog owner, hair icon, pantsuit aficionado, glass ceiling cracker, TBD." Some commentators called it a "21st-century form of self-actualization." I call it the ultimate liberation from appearance censure.

Follow Sarah Hampson on Twitter: @hampsonwrites.