The Hillary Nutcracker

Thursday, February 21st, 2008

Oh, come on, do we need this? I know, I know, it’s cute. STAINLESS STEEL THIGHS! FEEL THE SQUEEZE!

Perhaps the fact that a major party is about to nominate either a female or an African-American male to be president of the United States is so lacking in controversy, so quietly ho-hum, that a little adolescent gender humor on the side is no big deal, either.

Enter — stage right? stage left? — the Hillary Nutcracker, a hot-selling novelty product of the 2008 political season that has gotten some fawning and even enthusiastic press, with right-wing MSNBC pundit Tucker Carlson so moved by the nutcracker he all but confessed his castration complex regarding Ms. Clinton, all in fun, of course. This is political discourse in America.

I’m still trying to figure out what to make of it — feeling at once troubled that this is more cultural rollback, that it’s OK (again, still) to mock the concept of women in power with quasi-sexual guffaws that mask deep male anger and fear, a la Tucker Carlson; yet at the same time swayed by the idea that this light-hearted product, while it has obvious appeal to Hillary haters, could also appeal to her supporters and to women in general because it conveys female empowerment, and in any case it’s funny, and sometimes it’s OK to just lighten up.

The Hillary Nutcracker is just that: an 8-inch plastic Hillary figure, smiling, arms crossed, that cracks nuts between its legs. The product’s Web site works hard to be nonpartisan, spoofing politicians and pundits of all stripes, and designer Gibson Carothers, who says he’s sold 200,000 nutcrackers so far, vigorously defended the benign, even pro-Hillary nature of the nutcracker in an e-mail exchange with me.

“I’m sure you will be surprised to know that our best estimate is that sales are breaking almost 50-50 between supporters and detractors. And the buyers are overwhelmingly women,” he wrote (for our complete exchange, see below). “The supporters see it portraying Ms. Clinton as a tough leader who can handle right wing nuts.”

He adds: “Amazingly . . . the buyers are almost all women. My attorney is a feminist. She thinks Hillary should put the nutcracker on the podium every time she speaks. One other interesting point to me, and you’ll just have to believe me on this, is the paucity of complaints we have gotten — about 10 negative e-mails from over a million visits to our web site.”

Well, OK. My own modest survey of mostly women yielded a far higher percentage of negative reaction, and I stress that the negativity wasn’t simply humorlessness; it was more like a sharp stab of pain, followed by fury or the memory of some injury caused by an arrogant or dominating male jerk.

That said, I add in all fairness that other women — including some who, I thought, would surely be offended by the Hillary Nutcracker — were ambivalent at most and saw in it at least some of what Carothers was talking about.

“It’s juvenile,” said Carmen, a thirtysomething mom. “But it’s less offensive because the culture has changed. There’s more awareness of violence against women. It’s sexist lite.”

When I suggested that it struck me as the equivalent of a racist caricature of Barack Obama — a Barack lawn jockey, say — she disagreed. The latter “has no silver lining. It’s totally racist. The silver lining of the Hillary Nutcracker is that it does humorously and forcefully exude power.

“What makes it OK,” she added, “is that we’ve gone forward as a society. But when the media embrace it . . .”

Well, that gets worrisome, she acknowledged. It obliterates the hard-won consciousness of the last 30 or so years. It rolls back awareness “past ‘take back the night,’” to the good old days of, oh, forever. (“But I suffer not a woman to teach, nor to usurp authority over the man, but to be in silence.” — 1 Timothy 2:12)

Some of that media reaction can be found at, including a bizarre MSNBC segment in which Carlson, after a cohort describes the product, exclaims, “That is so perfect. I have often said, when she comes on TV, I involuntarily cross my legs.”

Here’s where my impulse is to weep for my country. Commentary this dumb seems like the norm, doesn’t it? There is a vacuity, a collective stupidity of the airwaves, that feels conspiratorial in nature. News is at least 90 percent context, and the smirky commentators and coiffed anchorpersons of the tube create a context that plays at about the eighth-grade level, a circumstance even more acutely painful in an election year with stakes as high as this one.

Sexism lite? Good fun? Castration? Let me know what you think.


I am a syndicated columnist with Tribune Media Services and am thinking of discussing the Hillary Nutcracker in a column. My take on it, and those of women I have talked to about it, is that the product is sexist and offensive. It is genuinely upsetting for some I have talked to about it.

I invite you to respond.

Bob Koehler

* * *

Mr. Koehler,

The Hillary Nutcracker was made because we thought it was funny. Not because we thought it was sexist and offensive.

We’re not members of any group, right or left, or even any political party. We’d tried to be as neutral as possible. The positioning line on the box reflects that–”Is America ready for this nutcracker?” Yes, we labeled her a nutcracker, but she does have an indisputable reputation for being tough and has carried very high negatives for many years.

The idea sprang from this simple question: Can a woman, in this case, Hillary Clinton, appear tough enough to be Commander-in-Chief, and still remain likable enough to be elected President? (When asked if I know such a woman, I usually answer the late Ann Richards of Texas — tough, but with a great sense of humor.)

I’m sure you will be surprised to know that our best estimate is that sales are breaking almost 50-50 between supporters and detractors. And the buyers are overwhelmingly women. The supporters see it portraying Ms. Clinton as a tough leader who can handle right wing nuts. (You must agree that the product is flattering to the Senator–it is not some ugly caricature.) Her detractors see it depicting her as a hard-edged, power-hungry, polarizing b-word.

We’ve seen reports, I can probably send you one if you want, of Clinton campaigners proudly displaying the nutcracker on their desks. And the candidate has laughed and signed quite a few at rallies.

Fortunately for us, a large number of people see the humor in the product. Over 200,000 have been sold and the Washington Post (Raw Fisher) pointed out that is ten times more than the sales of what is considered a highly successful political novelty product.

Perhaps the women you spoke with are a little more sensitive these days with the Clinton campaign in such difficulty. That would certainly be understandable. But we always thought the product gave Senator Clinton the opportunity to make fun of herself–to be more human and likeable.

If you decide to write your column and have any specific questions you would like to ask, I’ll be happy to give them my best shot.

Gibson Carothers

* * *

Dear Gibson,

Thanks for your speedy reply. I could tell from the site that the item was essentially neutral politically and that the intent was humor, not something from the hate-Hillary underground (where far worse stuff than the Hillary nutcracker is floating around). Here’s the essence of my concern about the product, and my best summation of the reaction some women have had to it: It isn’t that it’s an attack on, or joke at the expense of, Hillary per se, but rather that it makes a quasi-sexual, blatantly stereotypical statement about women: They’re either sex objects or ballbusters. That’s what makes it offensive and upsetting. It could strike a cord of pain for women who have been raped or sexually exploited at some point and remind them of the pervasive male-dominant attitude that they should stay in their places … or else. It’s comparable to a Sambo joke or something worse being made about an African-American politician. The women I talked to about it tended to be Obama supporters, by the way, so politics wasn’t the problem. Sexism was.

I would say my biggest concern/shock was the media reviews of the product, in particular Tucker Carlson saying he has to cross his legs when Hillary comes on TV. This was remarkably weird, plunging our election-year political discourse to a sad level. This isn’t your fault and, as a media watcher and critic, I actually thank you for airing it.

I’m not interested in sounding someone out for violating the precepts of political correctness, but I am concerned about a deteriorating atmosphere of public respect that makes women more vulnerable.

All the best,

Bob Koehler

* * *

Dear Bob,

We just disagree on this. If I did a blowup doll of a Playboy Playmate of the Month, I’d certainly be implying that she is a sex object. But she is a sex object. I made a nutcracker out of Hillary Clinton because she is one. Most people would agree with me. Why does this have to be some sweeping stereotypical statement about all women? This is only about Hillary Clinton and a reputation she has. A reputation that many thought would serve her well in a run for the White House. Many people think the first female President will have to be tough– Maggie Thatcher like.

I guess one could say the range is between sex object and ballbreaker, but those aren’t the only two options. There’s even plenty of other stereotypes– tomboy, bimbo, femme fatale, old maid, etc. Check out one of the Guerilla Girls books on all the labels put on women.

Sambo joke? Wow, I just don’t see it. We probably agree on the deteriorating state our entire culture, including a lack of respect for women and much worse–violence toward women. And if I had your job, I’d probably be writing about all the disgusting song lyrics, movies and video games. But I’m a joke writer. By definition that probably makes me a little less sensitive and more apt to make fun of others.

Amazingly, this has become the best selling political novelty product of all time. And the buyers are almost all women. My attorney is a feminist. She thinks Hillary should put the nutcracker on the podium every time she speaks. One other interesting point to me, and you’ll just have to believe me on this, is the paucity of complaints we have gotten–about 10 negative e-mails from over a million visits to our web site.

Oddly, a very capable and thoughtful and issue-oriented woman is about to be eliminated from the race for the Democratic nomination by a man who more and more other women are literally fainting over. That’s a less flattering statement about women than my nutcracker.


P.S. — Bob, In speaking with my wife about our correspondence, she reminded me of the women who have purchased the Hillary Nutcracker and then prominently displayed it on their desk at work believing that it says “Don’t mess with me!” In other words, almost an empowerment rather than the vulnerability you worry about.

And one more point, the initial or gut reaction to the product is usually that it is negative to Senator Clinton. The second reaction, after some thought, is that it is positive. My partner has a store which has allowed us a great place to interact with buyers. When some women are clearly annoyed with the product, three little words almost always turn them around and get them smiling… right wing nuts.

Good luck with your column. Please send me a copy.