I chose not to have a picture for this post – read on to find out why!
Women in politics face many challenges, not least of which is how they negotiate their representations in the public eye. One of the particular problems I’ve noticed is that aspects of women’s identities, ranging from how they dress to how they comport themselves sexually, are frequently focused upon by the media in ways that are much more critical than the focus on men.
The event that first got me thinking about this issue was a New York Times article on a female political candidate’s shoe choice. After asking about the candidate’s shoes (Kate Spades), the journalist admits that such a question is irrelevant, trivializing, and sexist… and yet these and similar questions are asked of female politicians all the time. I share one Jezebel blogger’s suspicions that focusing on women’s attire in the public sphere is a sexist distraction from, well, all the other sexist rhetoric distorting issues of gender in politics.
Another New York Times article examines the attire of women in politics and the corporate world, observing that women in high profile positions tend to err on the side of “mannish” clothing in an attempt to emulate how power has tended to look in the modern world. The women who choose Hillary-Clinton-style suits over Sarah-Palin-style trendy outfits aren’t out of touch with fashion or stupid; rather, they’re aware that their very presence in politics and the business world leads to increased scrutiny, so they’d better make an attempt to fit in with the prevailing masculine population and their stereotypes.
The dialogue on what is “appropriate” or not for a woman to wear in public has targeted Michelle Obama among others, as this Feministe piece points out. (sleeveless attire is apparently never appropriate for “serious” occasions – whew, I’m glad I had this one pointed out to me! major social gaffe averted!) When was the last time a male politician’s clothing choices were scrutinized so closely, so viciously, so condescendingly?
If what women wear isn’t being critiqued, what they do, especially sexually, is. Christine O’Donnell has been criticized from a number of perspectives, but a recent story that tells of a raunchy sexual escapade of hers is unnecessarily sexist, as Jill on Feministe discusses:
“The O’Donnell story rubs me the wrong way not because her sex life is totally off-limits â€” sorry, sister, but when you start using your own purity and sexual mores to try and dictate everyone else’s, and when you want to be the sex police and violate everyone else’s privacy, you lose the right to your own â€” but because the whole story is coded in a very specific, very sexist way. She’s aggressive, which is bad for a lady, and especially embarrassing in the sexual sphere where women should be hunted; and she’s also kind of sexually unattractive, with the pubic hair and all. Plus she’s way sluttier than she says she is. The story doesn’t center around the hypocrisy aspect so much as the titillation factor. The point of the story isn’t to expose O’Donnell as a person who says one thing and does another; the point is to shame and humiliate her, and to shame humiliate her in an expressly sexualized way that is really only directed at women.”
It’s the titillation factor, the making of women’s choices into a spectacle, that irritates me so much. It’s why I chose not to have a picture in this post, so as not to distract from the discussion. The cultural emphasis on pretty pictures of women makes sense in the context of the “soft war against women,” to borrow a phrase from a thought-provoking Salon article. The latest backlash against women and feminism insidiously tells women that yes, we can achieve everything that men can–but should we? When obviously we’re more nurturing and our talents might be put to better use in the domestic sphere? When we might accidentally tread on men’s vulnerable egos and jobs by putting ourselves out there in the professional realm, or, worse yet, achieve professional success at the cost of our own happiness? As the author put it, “The 2010 Year of the Woman was mainly about candidates who supported policies traditionally advanced by white men. This is not just an isolated political accident. It is part of a pattern that has dire consequences for women.” Some of these consequences include the hyper-sexualization of women in the public sphere, affecting not only women who wanted to be publicly visible (such as political candidates), but also women and girls who wanted role models, to know how to dress, how to be fashionable–and who were unfailingly told that the image to aspire to was that of a “a plasticized, scripted, hyper-sexualized, surgically enhanced young woman.”
The bottom line is that in the mainstream media, we’re hearing a lot more about what women are wearing (plus what they should or shoudn’t be wearing), and what they’re doing (especially when they’re doing it wrong, or sexually, which is about the same thing), than what they’re saying. Women in politics are, more often than not, portrayed in a distorted light as entertainment rather than substance, transformed into something to be seen and heard but not really listened to, and I find this phenomenon to be widespread and problematic.