Lord, do people love a feisty grandma. Give them Ruth Bader Ginsburg, draped in her spangly dissent collar, out-planking everyone forever. Give them Hillary Clinton, but mostly the version where she’s wearing indoor-sunglasses and checking her BlackBerry on an airplane. Elizabeth Warren, she of the spunky Senate floor speeches? Yes! Nevertheless, she persisted! (And then she persisted in getting her DNA tested for Native American ancestry and it was quietly agreed upon that she should persist a little less).
Give them all the older women who are cursing and twerking while wearing Helen Mirren bikinis or talking about their sex lives or asking about your sex life. Our culture loves meme-ing gray-haired ladies when they’re a little inappropriate.
Which is why, on Tuesday, after Nancy Pelosi dressed down President Trump in a televised Oval Office meeting and sauntered out like she had to get to a lunch date with Audrey Hepburn, being pro-Nancy suddenly became cool again in certain liberal circles.
“Seventy. [Bleeping]. Eight.” gushed one fan on Twitter over a photo of the Democratic leader leaving the White House in a burnt-orange swing coat and sunglasses.
Pelosi paused to explain why she’d requested that the meeting, which also included Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), continue off camera: “I didn’t want to, in front of [President Trump and Vice President Pence], say, ‘You don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
She got back to Capitol Hill and promptly snarked Trump’s border wall: “It’s like a manhood thing for him,” she reportedly told House Democrats. “As if manhood could ever be associated with him.”
Her base, judging by online chatter, loved the unexpected sass. Nancy!
A few weeks ago, the fashionable argument was that Pelosi shouldn’t be in meetings representing Democrats at all. She was a dinosaur: too elderly, too corporate, too Nancy-ish to regain the title of House speaker. Let her make way for the young revolutionaries. Let her fade.
But with a few savvy moves, Pelosi this week managed to escape the brittle society lady stereotype she had been forced into, and let herself be recast as a feisty grandma, one of the few ingratiating roles allowed women her age.
“I was trying to be the mom,” she told colleagues post-meeting, about keeping the peace between Trump and Schumer. But “it goes to show you: You get into a tinkle contest with a skunk, you get tinkle all over you.”
This is a common enough aphorism, but it’s usually delivered with a more vulgar synonym. The introduction of “tinkle” makes it — well, rhetorically, it accomplishes a lot of things. It makes the entire quote repeatable, for one thing, guaranteeing media attention. But it’s also a self-consciously prim word. A potty-training word. The kind of word that pegs its user as simultaneously polite and saucy, and that depicts Trump as a toddler in need of pull-ups.
It was a strategic word choice for Pelosi’s first White House meeting as presumptive House speaker.
“Tinkle is a fun word. Haven’t heard it since I was a kid,” praised a supporter.
“Nancy Pelosi is everybody’s favorite badass grandma,” responded another.
As adoration of Pelosi scrolled across my screen — and readers filled my inbox suggesting that I should laud her, weeks after readers in my inbox suggested I should loathe her — it felt like an illustration of a known conundrum:
We apparently view self-promotion — or mere self-assertion — as unseemly. Hillary Clinton consistently earned approval ratings in the mid- to high 60s when she served as secretary of state, higher than Barack Obama or Joe Biden during those years. But when she ran for president, her numbers tanked. Only 34 percent had positive feelings about her in a spring 2016 poll. A similar thing happened to Warren, a progressive superstar for conceptualizing the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau who saw then her ratings dip when she first sought a Senate seat.
So on Tuesday, Pelosi was doing her job, and her fan base loved it. She was being a boss, they thought. And she was doing it in a way that was specifically feminine, in a way that highlighted her age and her maternal instincts.
In a way, this was a tidy response to criticisms that she was past her prime. Do Democrats really want to send a young, inexperienced revolutionary into contentious White House meetings? Or do they want to send a grandma?
It’s worth mentioning, I guess, that Pelosi shouldn’t have had to wear the perfect coat and choose the perfect naughty phrases to become so beloved. That’s not how it would work in a merit-based world instead of a meme-based one. Male politicians don’t age into feisty grandfathers in the public’s eye; they get to age into statesmen. But by leaning into the archetype, Pelosi was conveying a carefully crafted message: Everyone else around her might need pull-ups. She was old and experienced, and by god, she was feisty enough to take them all on.