And, as Media Matters notes, it’s not the first time that the comparison has been made, and they manage to cite over a dozen other ridiculous mainstream references to Clinton as Ratched. The proof is in the google image search: I’m not nearly twisted, bored or motivated enough to have made the image above myself. And for the record, it kind of creeps me out. A lot.
But it got me thinking. Personally, I like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. I have read the book and seen the film both for the first time in the last year or so (there will be some spoilers in this post). I enjoyed both. Nurse Ratched has become a pop culture figure for a reason: she’s evil, and yet she’s also the kind of person you might meet on the street. Or who might be deciding your medical care. I also know that the character of Nurse Ratched is deeply misogynist — and that this is the reason that the Ratched/Clinton comparison exists.
The misogyny of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is simple. There aren’t many female characters in the book, and those that exist are caricatures. In the background, you’ve got (literally) the “whores” and the sterile, timid and prudish nursing staff would be the “virgins.” Nurse Ratched is the evil wench. Ratched has always been read as a metaphor for how power can corrupt institutions, and how it is a danger to us all. I agree.
But what’s generally not said is that she’s also a metaphor for what happens in a world where women have power. She is the only significant female character. She has control over all of the men. Those who are truly in charge of the asylum and responsible for what happens there are male, and yet they cede all of their power to Ratched; death and destruction follow. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that the book was written in 1962, right when second wave feminism was starting to kick off, and that the film was made in 1975, once feminism had become part of the mainstream and the first women were gaining positions of power. Ken Kesey might have been a beatnik/hippie, but that didn’t stop Kerouac (one of my favorite authors) from having misogynist ideas, either.
If the misogyny is not crystal clear throughout, though, it’s unmistakable in the ending of the novel (though not in the film). McMurphy — I think justifiably — physically assaults Nurse Ratched. Though McMurphy ultimately dies, he also manages to take down Nurse Ratched with the attack. His choking causes her to lose her voice, which diminishes her authority. But just as importantly, if not more so, he rips off the front of her uniform, exposing her breasts. [For this reason, and due to somewhat vague writing, I think that McMurphy’s actions in the book could be read as an attempted rape, though my searching turned up no one who agrees.] My copy of the book is high up on a shelf right now, or otherwise I’d love to pull out a quote, but I do remember the passage vividly. It is specifically remarked upon that exposing Nurse Ratched’s body exposed her as a woman and that this act made her both vulnerable and sexual — thus destroying her power. She goes down not for being exposed as evil, not for the patients realizing that they have free will and out number her, but because they suddenly realize that she is female.
Back to the issue at hand — do I think that Chris Matthews, et al. consciously think of all of this when making the comparison of Hillary Clinton to Nurse Ratched? No — I don’t think that they’re nearly that critical, intelligent or self-aware. But I also believe that (though I’ve done so here), it’s not something that necessarily needs to be spelled out. Maybe they realize it, maybe they don’t, but they pick Nurse Ratched for a reason — and it’s for all of the reasons that I’ve defined above.
It’s not that anyone thinks that Clinton is truly evil (come on, now); it’s that Nurse Ratched represents female power over men and the imagined horrors that it could cause. It’s a castration complex, which is another thing that these types aren’t afraid to try to pin on Clinton. And more than that — perhaps most importantly of all — they think that just like with Nurse Ratched, they can bring Hillary Clinton down by “exposing” the fact that she has boobs.
The most distressing part of all is that they may be right. Is Cuckoo unfair in its portrayal of Nurse Ratched’s demise? Some might say yes, and until just now, I would be inclined to agree. But reflecting on this comparison, and in light of this election season and its media coverage, I can’t help but think that Kesey may have been onto more than we’d like to believe.