Watch Hillary Clinton in almost any public forum and you’ll see it: on the presidential debate stage, in an interview with a reporter, or during an appearance on Saturday Night Live. First, there’s the smile, which widens until her entire face has burst into a raucous, unabashedly loud laugh. Hillary Clinton laughs often, and she almost always laughs in the same way—with her mouth wide open, and her joy obvious.
In a series of emails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta, leaked by Wikileaks, he and other staffers comment on Hillary Clinton’s laughter. Luke Albee, in response to Clinton’s testimony in the House Benghazi hearing wrote that, “[Clinton] sometimes laughs a little too hard at jokes that aren’t that funny. Other than that… ”
Podesta replied, “Laughing too hard is her authentic weirdness.”
“Authentic” isn’t a word used very often to describe Hillary Clinton. But there it is, used to characterize that unavoidable laugh that escapes her at every opportunity. She could probably control it, tone it down, or hide it with a hand over her mouth. But she hasn’t. Hillary’s refusal to laugh quietly (intentional or not) is also a refusal to apologize for taking up space in the world, something women have done for all of human history.
It might be unladylike to laugh with your mouth wide open, but it’s also quite unlike a lady to run for president of the United States of America.
My sister and I are very loud laughers. We are the kinds of laughers who will, if brought into a fit by anything we find funny enough, will be shushed by tables around us at a restaurant. We laugh with our mouths wide open. It’s something our mother thinks is funny, and she’ll laugh at us laughing. But as children, growing up in the South, it was something we were often admonished for. Our gaping mouths, teeth out for all to see, we were told, should be covered like a sneeze or a yawn, with our hands like gentle barriers between our own glee and the world.
“Manners,” whatever they may be, have dictated a set of norms of what constitutes polite laughter from women. (Men, meanwhile, are rarely instructed on how to display their joy.) “Don’t talk or laugh loud enough to attract attention, and on no account force yourself to laugh,” Emily Post once wrote. Another manners guide published even earlier by Mrs. Humphrey in 1897 advised that “a lady’s laugh should be short and unassuming.”
There is only one photo of a laughing Hillary Clinton that I have found in which she covers her mouth. It’s from 1995, and she is seated next to former first lady Barbara Bush in the East Room of the White House, waiting for an official presidential painting to be revealed. She is laughing so hard her laugh seems to have rocked her forward in her chair, and Barbara Bush is laughing too, though more carefully, with her eyebrows raised.
But even here, it is obvious that she’s not being quiet. Her body dominates the photo, her raucous behavior taking up space in the room.
This is something new in the course of human history. Not only that an American woman has won the presidential nomination of a major party, but even that a woman would feel comfortable enough in a space so formal and powerful to laugh heartily without feeling an ounce of shame. Men’s voices are supposed to be assertive, confident, and loud. Women are expected to be more submissive, quiet, and demure.
Fanny Burney, an early 19th-century British novelist, wrote in her journals that she often struggled to contain her laughter within the decency of public decorum, saying, “[he] made me laugh to so immoderate a degree that I was quite ashamed.” She later calls her laughter “excessive.” That kind of adherence to a social code of expectation is something women battle in every step of life. How loudly can I laugh? When? With whom?
In her 1792 book A Vindication of the Rights of Women, Mary Wollstonecraft argues that one of the greatest weapons contemporary women held against sexism was their laughs. Satire, she argued, could be used to overthrow the system of oppression women were held under. Laughter, then, was power.
Here is Hillary Clinton, who very well might be our first female president, with her mouth wide open, her teeth straight and shining, and her voice echoing out her joy across the country. It’s not a girlish, quaint little giggle, and it’s not the practiced chuckle of a seasoned politician. It’s a hearty affirmation of her existence, over and over and over again.
Just like people hate Hillary Clinton’s voice, her pantsuits, her haircuts, and her facial expressions, people really hate Hillary’s laugh. The New York Times has called it the “Clinton Cackle.” In 2014, the National Journal compiled a supercut of Hillary laughing with reporters. So did the Washington Free Beacon, and so did Jimmy Kimmel and The Daily Show and dozens of YouTubers.
Maybe people hate Hillary’s laugh because they just dislike her. Or maybe they hate it because they think it’s fake. “Take Hillary Clinton’s strategic laughter during heated exchanges with Donald J. Trump during the presidential debates,” the New York Times wrote. There’s that word: strategic. Like “manipulative” and “calculated,” it’s a word that implies deceit, that she isn’t really laughing at all—that, in a way, she’s lying.
Of course, Hillary Clinton is a politician. It is part of her job description to laugh a little too loudly at bad jokes and smile at every baby. People mistake fake laughter for real laughter almost a third of the time, according to research done at the University of California, Los Angeles, so for most people even a fake laugh will do. On some days, on some stages, her laugh must be staged and decisive. That’s what makes her a disciplined politician, just like Barack Obama was before her.
But calling Hillary Clinton a liar is a trope as old as her presence in the public eye. When she was first lady, conservative writers slapped the label “liar” across Hillary Clinton’s forehead, and it’s stayed there ever since. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote for The Atlantic:
If she was a liar, then the hostility she engendered could not possibly be because she was a first lady who refused to be still and silent. “Liar’ has re-emerged during this election even though Politifact, a respected source of information about politicians, has certified that she is more honest than most politicians—and certainly more honest than her opponent.
And Hillary Clinton laughs a lot. She laughs on campaign stages and in meet-and-greets. She laughs with her husband Bill and with her Republican colleagues in the Senate.
“There’s something very fresh about that laugh. She may be forcing herself to think that something is funny, but to me it’s a good laugh.” Stanford University linguistics professor Penelope Eckert told The New Republic in May 2015. “She’s putting herself out there. She is not softening anything for anybody.”
Throughout this long, exhausting campaign season, Hillary Clinton has made mistakes, and had problems, and been forced to adjust. But she hasn’t changed a thing about her laugh. It’s still loud and dynamic—a cackle even the loudest women can respect.
Her laugh reminds us that just because society doesn’t know what to do with a loud and bold woman who takes up space, doesn’t mean you can’t be one.