Making A Spectacle Of Women In Politics

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 — 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 — 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.

Follow us on Twitter @mysexprofessor. Follow Jeana, the author of this post, @foxyfolklorist.

About Jeana


Jeana Jorgensen, PhD recently completed her doctoral degree in folklore and gender studies at Indiana University. She studies fairy tales and other narratives, dance, body art, feminist theory, digital humanities, and gender identity.

  • Lionmml

    Oh oh oh oh oh! OMG!!! Could I love this article a bit more? Ok, let me rephrase that, could I be happier that someone is writing about this issue and addressing it? Nope! Am I pissed as Hell with how women are treated according to their looks/sexuality.

    Don’t. Get. Me. Started. (Burning. Rage.)

    First, thanks for this great article. I want this discussion to keep going. And hopefully get us all good and mad. When was the last time a male politician got up and people criticized him for his shoes!! (ARGH!)

    At times like this I have some favorite quotes. First, my favorite quote about women and clothing, made by the great Gloria Steinem: “I think women should wear whatever the f*ck they want.” So to my dear and excellent First Lady Michelle Obama I say “YOU ROCK THOSE SLEEVELESS LOOKS AND SHOW THEM AWESOME BICEPS!” All caps ’cause I hope she heard that.

    As for women’s sexuality, well oddly enough my two favorite quote come from men. (!) First, Jesus Christ: “Let he who is without sin, cast the first stone.” Second, David Mamet: “All men are whores.” Try throwing those lines around when you hear the double standard being used. It’s a real eye-opener. The double-standard toward women’s sexuality makes me even crazier than the pay issue. (Yup, it makes me that crazy.)

    Keep writing article like this please!!! We gotta get the word out.

    Also, dear writer, you are quite good at this. You have a wonderful writing style. You are not only a succinct writer, but you have rhythm as well with wonderful vowel and consonant usage. In short, your work feels good in the mouth and would be fun to read out loud. Like the playwright George Bernard Shaw.

  • Jeana Jorgensen

    Thank you for your comment! You make a lot of great points, especially about the double standards that apply to men’s vs. women’s sexuality. I really hope that writing about these issues and drawing them to people’s attention helps contribute to untangling some of them…. :)