Hillary Clinton is in an ebullient mood, and for good reason.
Clinton, though she remains an avid observer of political trends, is out of the crucible of hunting for votes. And at this latest stop on a tour that has included visits to the Venice and Toronto film festivals, she and her daughter, Chelsea Clinton, are seeking something new: your eyeballs.
HiddenLight Prods., which the pair launched with Sam Branson (son of Richard Branson, of the Virgin brand), has launched its first series, “Gutsy.” The Apple TV+ documentary series is based on the Clintons’ 2019 “Book of Gutsy Women: Favorite Stories of Courage and Resilience,” and in it, the former secretary of state and the Oxford Ph.D. kibitz with Kim Kardashian and Megan Thee Stallion, as well as feminist icon Gloria Steinem and labor activist Dolores Huerta.
It’s an intriguing merger of the stoic, scholarly nature of the famous mother-daughter pair and the high-level glitz of the world of entertainment they enter as newbies; despite being one of the most accomplished figures in American politics, Secretary Clinton is a neophyte producer and on-camera personality. (Both Clintons initially hoped not to be on-camera at all. Perhaps that’s why, in the first episode, they attend clown school in order to loosen up.)
In this conversation, which takes place in New York City, Hillary Clinton addresses the aftermath of the 2016 election, the threats against women in politics, and whether she believes a woman could ever become president. Chelsea Clinton speaks out about what it felt like to be the subject of “relentless” scrutiny on the campaign trail and to see her family covered on Fox News. Together, they share their vision for what they hope to accomplish with “Gutsy” in this new and unexpected pivot into entertainment.
“Gutsy” deals with figures from outside the world of politics — you profile artists and entertainers as well as activists. Has there been a learning curve as you engage with the world of entertainment?
Hillary Clinton: There certainly was a learning curve doing the series, because we’ve never done anything like that. We’d been interviewed a lot of times, as you might guess, but to be the one leading the conversation and asking follow-up questions — that was all new to us.
Chelsea Clinton: Having women from entertainment was important to us, because we think there are a lot of gutsy women in entertainment. But we also hoped that people might come to learn more about women they already feel drawn to and know something about, and that would enable them to learn about women whose stories we think we all should know.
What you’re describing is a kind of Trojan-horse phenomenon.
Hillary: That’s absolutely fair. When we interviewed the really well-known women, like Kim Kardashian, we didn’t want to focus on just her amazing success in business and everything else that goes with it, but on her efforts to help people caught up in the criminal justice system. That’s what was meaningful to us.
The name “HiddenLight” recalls the saying of light being hidden under a bushel.
Hillary: You nailed it. When I was in sixth grade, my teacher, Mrs. Elizabeth King, had many aphorisms that she shared with her students. One was “Don’t hide your light under a bushel basket,” which was a biblical phrase. When we were forming the production company, I just kept thinking about Mrs. King.
Chelsea: It’s certainly an admonition that I grew up with, and sometimes I really needed to hear it. Sometimes I really wanted to fade into the background because I didn’t want as many people looking at me, or as many bright lights glaring at me.
Chelsea, in “Gutsy,” you describe the experience of being the child of a president and mocked in the media. Is there fear when you step in front of a camera now?
Chelsea: I thankfully don’t feel that residual fear. I didn’t feel fear as a child, because otherwise I would have just been afraid all the time. As I think about raising brave, resilient kids, I try to think more about what I want to learn from my experience as a child instead of being reactionary to it.
Hillary: One thing that Chelsea has done repeatedly is to tell people to back off from kids. She’s been so consistent, and I really respect that.
Chelsea: I feel such a palpable sense of responsibility because I wish more people had been standing up publicly for me.
Hillary: And they really weren’t back then.
Chelsea, your children are out of public view. Does that take effort?
Hillary: It’s being conscious all the time.
Chelsea: And having them be conscious and not paranoid.
How does working together creatively change a parent-child relationship?
Chelsea: I think because we wrote the book together, that’s where we got out all the kinks. Or at least many of the kinks. Some of it was generational — my mom still writes longhand, and I am in the 21st century and use a computer. She has a very old iPhone, so sometimes her iPhone wasn’t compatible with the apps I wanted to use. It was having work conversations and then, OK, now it’s time to talk about the grandkids.
Hillary: The book was initially an idea that came out of a conversation that we’ve had ever since she was a little kid about women that inspired us. When I was a little girl, there really weren’t a lot of women role models. Maybe Joan of Arc, Queen Elizabeth, but not very many. I had to seek that out. But when Chelsea was a little girl, her pediatrician was a woman, the mayor of Little Rock was a woman, a lot of my friends were active in their careers.
Did you anticipate, in working on the book, that it’d end up as a TV vehicle featuring you?
Hillary: When people approached us in the fall of 2019 to ask to option it, we thought, this is so personal to us because of the experience we went through writing it together, we don’t want to just turn it over to someone else. Of course, everybody we were pitching to wanted us to be involved in some way.
Chelsea: When we initially pitched it, we had this idea of a travelogue with us at the beginning and the end, not really in the middle. I also had ideas that we were going to have all of this wonderful archival footage, we would talk to historians … a more admittedly earnest paradigm.
Figuring out how to make something as earnest as you want but that people really can connect with is an interesting challenge.
Chelsea: I think it’s entertaining and earnest together. With the series, we really wanted to spark conversations. And for that to happen, people have to watch it.
Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said recently in an interview with GQ that part of her believes there could never be a woman president. Do you agree?
Hillary: No, I don’t agree with that. I do agree it’s really hard. I agree that the double standard is alive and well. And so therefore any woman in politics or any walk of life faces challenges that men who are equivalent in experience don’t face. I believe that I came so close, I got more votes, unprecedented things happened to me — we all learned a lot from that campaign. I do think it’s possible. I do think it’s hard. There’s a line from one of my favorite movies, “A League of Their Own”: “If it wasn’t hard, anybody could do it.”
I would also add that there is a feeling of increasing pushback to women’s ambitions and roles. We see it obviously with the Supreme Court, but social media has enhanced misogyny and sexism. It’s hurtful, because it becomes part of the ecosystem. There are a lot of good points that Rep. Ocasio-Cortez made in the article that I do agree with, but I think we will get there. But everybody needs to go after that goal with clear eyes and understanding how hard it is.
When a number of women ran for president in 2020, did you caution them?
Hillary: I was delighted that so many women ran, because we need to break the myth of the token woman. The more women who actually run, who are mixing it up at the highest levels of politics, the better it is. I met with and talked to every woman with the exception of one or two. The ones I knew well, I talked to them and gave them advice, but they had to experience it to understand it. It’s such a high-wire act with no net; until you’re on it, you cannot know how you’re going to be responding.
In a world where Facebook had never been invented, would you have won the 2016 election?
Hillary: I can’t do that hypothetical. We know that they were unfortunately instrumental in permitting Cambridge Analytica and the Trump campaign to engage in a massive campaign of mis- and disinformation. I think that would’ve been harder, but I can’t hypothesize about what would have been different.
Chelsea, did serving as a campaign surrogate for your mother twice give you a different perspective on politics?
Chelsea: I wasn’t surprised by the intensity of reaction — on both the incredibly supportive, affirmative and positive side or the cruel, vitriolic, meanness side. I wasn’t surprised by the lies or the efforts to obfuscate and gaslight. But what I found not necessarily surprising, but a “wow” moment, was the relentlessness of it. No one individual experience felt like “This is what it is like to campaign for a woman to be our next president.” But the relentlessness was exhausting in a way that I had not anticipated.
Your family was the first great target of Fox News’ approach.
Chelsea: We were the reason that Fox News was created. Because Rupert Murdoch recognized a great market opportunity.
As a media enterprise on a much smaller scale than Fox, do you see yourselves as fighting back?
Chelsea: Climate change illuminated where Fox News was willing to go and its destructive impact. It’s not singularly about Fox News; it’s also about conservative and right-wing enterprises that sprung up during the 1990s and early 2000s. I’m 42, and when I was in junior high, two-thirds of Americans knew human activity is partly responsible for climate change. The right proved to themselves, “We can hit people with relentless misinformation and every night pipe into their homes to disbelieve scientists — what else could be possible?” Today, with COVID, it’s the same playbook.
Hillary: There’s an element to this which is quite frustrating, because they get away with it. The so-called mainstream media, even the so-called progressive media, is just not as relentless in rebutting, refuting and making clear that this is nothing but a play for profits at the cost of truth. It might have mattered if one of the other networks for 10 days said, “Do you know one of the very first people to get vaccinated in the U.K. in December of 2020 was Rupert Murdoch? Did you know that Fox News requires all of their employees to be vaccinated?”
Tech companies, the rest of journalism, ordinary people with platforms, we haven’t done enough to point out the dangers, point out the falsehoods, point out the hypocrisy. There is a path to limit the damage they’ve done, but it requires leaders on the side of facts and evidence. We now have that with Biden, and he’s making slow progress in trying to open people’s minds and eyes to what reality actually is.
Hearing you describe political combat as ‘relentless’ makes clear to me, Chelsea, why you’ve never run for office.
Chelsea: It’s important to say that even though it is relentless and exhausting, we continue to get up every day and fake it till we make it, because we do believe the future of our country and our very world is at stake. The fact that Fox News broadcasts some version of the great replacement theory on a regular basis and it doesn’t get a robust response from the rest of our media is really disturbing to me. The fact that you frequently see the cabal of George Soros, my mom and President Obama, who seem to be their three favorite villains, and there isn’t a continued outcry about anti-Semitism is really problematic to me.
I have had a unique experience with the right. It has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. Anything I can do to push back and create space for the stories I think we should be focused on is what I want to do. I don’t think the only way to do that is to run for office. The answer now is “Not now.” But I don’t want to say, “Not ever,” because I do think it’s an important question for any of us who care about our country.
In the time we have left …
Chelsea: Can I make one more point? As a daughter, because I can’t turn off that part of my reality, the relentless, gruesome imagery of my mom being hung or burned at the stake — the fact that that was not answered and shifted aside opened the aperture for even more violent imagery and more violent language around every woman in politics today. I don’t know how we put that genie back in the bottle, but we have to do a better job.
Hillary: I was in England a few months ago and met with a group of women parliamentarians. The main thing they wanted to talk about was the increase in violent threats against them. They think about the woman who, during Brexit, was murdered because she was against Brexit — a fanatic, hopped up on violent rhetoric, killed her. [Jo Cox, a Labour Party member of Parliament, was murdered in June 2016 in England.] It’s something that was in the Ocasio-Cortez article: How do you tell young women to go into politics when there is so much pushback and threats of violence? It’s a big issue, and people are not taking it seriously enough.
Many people saw the Dobbs ruling, which overturned Roe v. Wade, as a wake-up call. Did you?
Chelsea: We have known this was coming for a long time.
Hillary: I warned about it in the 2016 election — I was sounding an alarm they didn’t hear.
Chelsea: I always spoke about the Supreme Court, and the right accused me of dancing on Justice Scalia’s death. I got called “histrionic,” I was fearmongering. No! I’m living in the world of taking them seriously and literally — from then-candidate Donald Trump to the elected Republicans at every level of our government who say they want to take away my fundamental human rights. I continue to be lambasted, and I continue to make the point.
The reaction to Dobbs reminded me of the Women’s March in 2017. Did you, Secretary Clinton, feel frustrated that all this energy was catalyzed after you lost the election campaigning on a feminist message?
Hillary: It’s hard for people to imagine something that is not actually happening yet. I, frankly, was shocked at the inauguration, where he painted this dark, dystopian picture of America. There was no outreach — that’s not the person he is. People who supported him, who enabled him, they are engaged in a culture war. The culture war is dark and negative and fearful. The Women’s March was an incredible response to what happened in the election. It was important. But if you don’t stay organized to vote for people who have a more hopeful, positive, inclusive vision of our country, you can march from now until doomsday — it doesn’t make a difference. You have to show up and actually vote.
If there’s a culture war going on, you two are in an interesting position: You’re creators of culture now. Do you see “Gutsy” as a salvo in this ongoing battle?
Chelsea: We have polio now again here in New York. We have thousands of Americans dying every week of COVID. We have gun violence every minute of every day. We have the planet warming at faster rates than were initially anticipated. We have so much work to do. And so either we can live in the dark carnage of what the right wants us to believe is the inevitable story of our past, present and future, or we can build a more hopeful, inclusive, sustainable future, where there’s more joy and laughter.
Speaking of joy and laughter, I loved that you included Symone as one of your gutsy women. Had you seen drag before working on this show?
Chelsea: Yes, both shows here in New York City. And I was so excited when someone from Arkansas won “Drag Race.”
Favorite venue for drag shows? Or do you not want it to be flooded with people?
Chelsea: Exactly. Not for public consumption!