Join 3,512 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


The Princess Effect
July 4, 2014 9:36 AM   Subscribe

"It is often said that “Washington is Hollywood for ugly people,” but the adage is only half true. Women are not allowed to be ugly people because women—and nowhere more than in such women’s magazines that reduce female political leaders to their supposed fashion and lifestyle choices—are not really allowed to be people at all."
posted by roomthreeseventeen (41 comments total) 33 users marked this as a favorite

 
This is a great article, thank you for posting it.
posted by the young rope-rider at 9:50 AM on July 4


How women's magazines demean powerful women—even when they're trying to celebrate them.

I had never considered the vital role women's magazines play in helping women get elected.

Seriously, though, it's a two-way street: just as these magazines help shape conversation, the politicians (women) who interact with them are also anxious to shape their public image. They aren't victims here.

Besides, most successful politicians *are* conventionally attractive, and appearing as being conventionally attractive is highly desirable.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:12 AM on July 4 [4 favorites]


Seriously, though, it's a two-way street: just as these magazines help shape conversation, the politicians (women) who interact with them are also anxious to shape their public image. They aren't victims here.

I think that's a naive view of the situation. When there are only a few well-traveled streets to use, those who wish to use them must follow the unspoken rules. In other words, there aren't a plethora of outlets for female politicians to court national audiences of women, so those politicians need to abide by the guidelines that shape those publications and media outlets.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:19 AM on July 4 [11 favorites]


I have hated every article in every news cycle about women in politics that focus on something mundane and pointless like their haircuts, dress, or makeup. This goes all the way back to my first memories of the early 1980s when half of the mentions of Nancy Reagan in the news were about what dress she was wearing and have continued all the way to articles on Michelle Obama getting a haircut. It's all pointless junk that no one ever writes about male politicians and it's bullshit.
posted by mathowie at 10:19 AM on July 4 [32 favorites]


The thought of talking about Dick Cheney's pants size made me chuckle, until I realize that Chris Christie's pants size is ABSOLUTELY part of the discussion. Maybe not in the same sense as they are talking about here, but his weight is constantly discussed.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:19 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]


But no one is saying "those pants make Christie look fat," they're saying "Christie is fat." It's not a positive or helpful discussion to have (unless you're quesioning the health of a presidential hopeful, who could be adding a lot of stress to their life that is already taxing their body), but it's different from the discussion around the appearance of female politicians.
posted by filthy light thief at 10:22 AM on July 4 [5 favorites]


filthy light thief, that's true enough, I suppose. Although I think sometimes the discussion about Hillary Clinton's appearance and her age/health get confused, as well.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 10:28 AM on July 4


Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the first woman to hold that office, noted that it was not men in foreign governments, but men in the U.S. government who were most reluctant to take her seriously

That passage reminded me of this story: Soon, the Soviet sniper had had enough of the press’s sniping. “I wear my uniform with honor,” she told Time magazine. “It has the Order of Lenin on it. It has been covered with blood in battle. It is plain to see that with American women what is important is whether they wear silk underwear under their uniforms. What the uniform stands for, they have yet to learn.”

...


It seems to me that political campaigning in the US is inherently conservative, and that, while women obviusly have it much worse than men, the process of running for office is not only sexist and demeaning to women, but dehumanizing to many candidates of any gender.

You can't be too quirky or idiosyncratic. You have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, at least in your district/constituency. There are few open atheists, no iconoclastic artists, and only occasionally does a politician have a real sense of humor. I know a few local politicians, and it just seems like they have a horrible job.
posted by univac at 10:35 AM on July 4 [3 favorites]


They aren't victims here.

This isn't about who's entitled to a "morally pure victim of sexism" lapel pin. It's about double standards. The fact that some women attempt to live up to those standards or even gain some advantage from them doesn't change the fact that the standards are unfair, and no woman should have to deal with that bullshit.

Besides, most successful politicians *are* conventionally attractive

It's true that appearance impacts success.

It's untrue that appearance impacts success as much for men as it does for women. It's untrue that the appearance of male politicians is discussed in the same manner as the appearance of female politicians.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:41 AM on July 4 [26 favorites]


Besides, most successful politicians *are* conventionally attractive, and appearing as being conventionally attractive is highly desirable

The whole idea of bringing up the appearance of female politicians brings to mind the meme that seems to make the rounds every few months contrasting pictures of republican/conservative women looking their best with the least flattering pictures available of democratic/liberal women, with a caption indicating that republicans are better because they have all the attractive women. I've never seen the reverse, which to me says a lot about republican attitudes toward women (as if their legislation and speeches don't say enough already).
posted by TedW at 10:44 AM on July 4 [12 favorites]


really absorbing article, thanks.
posted by sweetkid at 10:48 AM on July 4


Also, the idea that you don't deserve to be called a "victim" of sexism if you make too many compromises is a nasty can of worms, starting with the false dichotomy between victimhood and agency, continuing right on through who gets to judge...
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 10:53 AM on July 4 [10 favorites]


Yeah, dismissing this as "not a problem" shows a complete lack of "engage the brain". Media always seems to engage women at a very superficial level. What I want to know is: who is their audience? Does it even exist? I do not buy, at all, that women only want to know what dress size Hillary Clinton is or whether they like Michelle Obama's haircut, even if they're reading a "fluff" magazine.

I'm not a really great judge of "conventional male beauty" but would guess that the number of "conventionally ugly" men that appear on magazine covers of any stripe is greater than zero. You could go into your local newsstand and find several right now.

I'm guessing it would be a lot harder to find a magazine with a "conventionally ugly" woman on the cover at that same newsstand.
posted by maxwelton at 10:56 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]


In other words, there aren't a plethora of outlets for female politicians to court national audiences of women, so those politicians need to abide by the guidelines that shape those publications and media outlets.

It goes beyond women in politics -- articles about women always seem to talk down to them all while airbrushing reality at the same time...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 11:03 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]


This is great article, thanks. I really like Sarah Kendzior.

I was reading about this issue a few months back when a study was released by Name It, Change It showing the effect of media commentary on a female politician's appearance.

Our study showed that:

-Neutral, positve, and negative descriptions of the woman candidate’s appearance all had detrimental impacts on her candidacy.
-While this appearance coverage is very damaging to women candidates, the male opponent paid no price for this type of coverage.
-When a woman candidate or a third-party responds directly by saying this coverage has no place in the media and that her appearance is not news, she regains the ground she lost.


The way to counteract this is for everyone (not just the woman politician) to call it out when we see it.

And I feel like I've been linking to her a lot lately but Lindy West has also written about this: How to Write About Female Politicians Without Being a Sexist Shithead

posted by triggerfinger at 11:12 AM on July 4 [21 favorites]


This isn't about who's entitled to a "morally pure victim of sexism" lapel pin. It's about double standards.

Is there really in this narrow context? I don't think so. Ugly male pols are called ugly. Ever seen a political caricature?
posted by KokuRyu at 11:17 AM on July 4


Also, liberals and conservative are both guilty of this. I see nasty stuff posted everywhere all the time attacking Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter based on their appearances and/or sexuality. That shit needs to stop too. It's not there isn't plenty of other material that could be used to attack them.
posted by triggerfinger at 11:18 AM on July 4 [13 favorites]


Great article, thanks for posting!

The whole idea of bringing up the appearance of female politicians brings to mind the meme that seems to make the rounds every few months contrasting pictures of republican/conservative women looking their best with the least flattering pictures available of democratic/liberal women, with a caption indicating that republicans are better because they have all the attractive women.

I have never been able to forget this article published in the Atlantic about two years ago about how the women on Fox news are the most heavily coiffed:

"An argument can be made that conservative women are typically less squeamish than progressive ones about embracing what the sociologist Catherine Hakim calls “erotic capital,” otherwise known as using your looks to get ahead. See the gleeful Laura Ingraham/­Ann Coulter school of beauty­ology, which holds that the angrier and better-­coiffed you are, the more attention you will receive. The Republican Party welcomes looks in a woman—Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin, Nikki Haley—and so does Fox."

But as always with women, you're damned if you do, damned if you don't. Put on red lipstick, and you're a whore; spend time on your appearance and you can't be taken seriously. The sooner we stop commenting on women's appearances, the better.
posted by peripathetic at 11:21 AM on July 4 [4 favorites]


Is there really in this narrow context? I don't think so. Ugly male pols are called ugly. Ever seen a political caricature?

Nobody should be called ugly, but the article is not about the physical traits one is born with.
posted by peripathetic at 11:30 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]


Lumping the unelected political operatives in with women who have run for and won elected offices doesn't really work. Huma Abedin has never run for office. No one has had to decide to vote for Condoleezza Rice. Pleasing voters is a different skill set than pleasing politicians. And wives of politicians have an even trickier balancing act. I'm not so sure that Nancy Pelosi is naive about how Vogue portrays her. JFK knew full well what he was doing when those photos in his office with his children were taken. Samantha Power doesn't have to pander to voters--people who would employ her or appoint her don't have to worry if the general public thinks she's a nice mommy or not.
posted by Ideefixe at 11:33 AM on July 4 [2 favorites]


The notion that a contemporary woman must look mannish in order to be taken seriously as a seeker of power is frankly dismaying.

I'm somehow not seeing very many butch women in American politics, none discussed in this article, and nothing about how looking more "mannish" helps women in politics or any other line of work. There is definitely a ton of pressure to be feminine, and to be feminine in particular ways, but I always end up frustrated with articles like this because they are so focused on feminine women and not on what this pressure means for the rest of us.
posted by bile and syntax at 11:35 AM on July 4 [2 favorites]


Previously, but feels appropriate here: Ladypockets
posted by Mchelly at 11:39 AM on July 4 [9 favorites]


It seems to me that political campaigning in the US is inherently conservative, and that, while women obviusly have it much worse than men, the process of running for office is not only sexist and demeaning to women, but dehumanizing to many candidates of any gender.

You can't be too quirky or idiosyncratic. You have to appeal to the lowest common denominator, at least in your district/constituency. There are few open atheists, no iconoclastic artists, and only occasionally does a politician have a real sense of humor. I know a few local politicians, and it just seems like they have a horrible job.


This is why - I generally vote, made the call in that direction - but this is why I can't get behind blasting people for not voting. The decisions that it's not worth the effort/time, or that abstaining serves as a vote of no confidence in the current electoral system, seem fine enough to me.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 11:53 AM on July 4 [1 favorite]


When Elisabeth Warren gets elected president* it will be really interesting to see what kind of press Bruce Mann gets (I'm not gonna lie, I had to look him up)

Bruce Mann fashion shoots, Bruce Mann victory garden, Bruce Mann's just say 'no'** campaign.

* oh please please please
** no to bankrupting the middle class
posted by poe at 11:57 AM on July 4


Also, liberals and conservative are both guilty of this. I see nasty stuff posted everywhere all the time attacking Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter based on their appearances and/or sexuality. That shit needs to stop too. It's not there isn't plenty of other material that could be used to attack them.

I think the "Anne Coulter is a man" crap is the absolute worst, though, for a variety of reasons. I do agree that personal attacks on women in politics tend to be quite vicious and tend to attack their status as women. The premier of British Columbia, Christy Clark, is a lying, venal, sociopathic stooge of industry, but I'm sure she's quite a nice person when she's not wielding power and influencing the lives of the least fortunate citizens. However, most of the online attacks are highly misogynistic. Nasty stuff.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:02 PM on July 4 [1 favorite]


I was pregnant when I first ran for public office. One of the big local journalists described each of the candidates (I was the only woman) in this fashion: "Joe Schmoe, accountant; John Smith, welder; and Eyebrows McGee, obviously pregnant." I still remember who it was, and I am still mad. I am equal parts mad that I get no JOB DESCRIPTORS and that she described it was "obviously." (I mean, it was obvious, I looked like a freaking cruise ship, but EVEN SO. RUDE.)

After I gave birth, both times, local talk radio made fun of my fat arms and slouchy clothes when I returned to a televised public meeting less than four weeks later. The talk radio DJ guy's daughter goes to activities with my son, we know each other, we're Facebook friends, he still made tons of fun of how fat and shitty I looked a month after giving birth.

When people disagreed with my votes, they often called my male colleagues "stupid" but me "ugly."

When I was pregnant the second time, I had to defensively announce it when I was about three months along because people were making fun of my "fat pants" and how my face looked so puffy.

That's just the tip of the body-mocking iceberg for women in public life, lemme tell you. I'm not sure I'll ever wear a sleeveless shirt in public again because GOOD GOD CAN SOME PEOPLE NOT SHUT UP about the horror that is "the upper arms of a woman over 30."

These are virtually all people I know and who know me who are doing this; it's exponentially worse as you get into statewide or national audiences who don't know you personally or at least as a friend-of-a-friend.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 12:54 PM on July 4 [74 favorites]


This issue is so far above liberal or conservative politics that I get a nose-bleed just thinking about it.

I was about 21 years old when first I became aware of women who bucked the paradigm. They cautioned their sisters about becoming "Max Factor Junkies," and insisted that women needed to wear make up and shave their legs for the same reasons men did: in other words, not.

It seems to me that you don't get to have it both ways: if you buy into the version of "feminine" beauty required by industries that make money off their products, you stand on shaky ground when trying to tweak their version of what a woman is supposed to look like to suit your vision of the man/woman balance: It's okay for them to beat you down, if only they will use a smaller whip.

The hairy-legged woman who's secure in her visage is rare. Even her sisters shout her down, in defense of the male version of womanhood. I have no issues concerning either make-up or unshaven body parts, except the one that addresses whether the person who does is doing it because it appeals to them, or because they are simply floating downstream with the trends--which, in this case, spread far into the nether regions where images of ourselves begin. Beauty, as a commodity, manufactured to suit the industry.

A woman politician will appeal to her base constituency in whatever way she can. So will a man. So, how is that different from the 10 year old girl who learns that women look like Barbie?--or, by extension, any other popular female, who gains celebrity by exploiting her looks via the usual venues?

I admit that my views are based on the shocking visions I gain through association with women in a political science course(in the autumn of 1971)--they were the ones who believed that Sisterhood is Powerful, and weren't after a fair portion of bread, they wanted their share of the goddam bakery. In order to survive in that class I had to shut up and listen, instead of relying on my privileged status as a male. This may have been one of the more useful things I learned at university.
posted by mule98J at 12:58 PM on July 4 [2 favorites]


While not the main factor, this whole culture was on my con list when I was deciding whether or not to continue on in politics. During my initial experience where I was able to be pretty much just ''me" it became clear that if I was to continue beyond that election I would have to consider this sort of crap a whole lot more. I just didn't have the desire or energy to add it into my daily life.
posted by Jalliah at 1:18 PM on July 4


That's just the tip of the body-mocking iceberg for women in public life, lemme tell you.

I don't know if there's anything more frustrating than being reduced (through praise or scorn, I don't even think it matters much) to a body so that your mind and thoughts can be dismissed.
posted by rue72 at 1:36 PM on July 4 [2 favorites]


It's all pointless junk that no one ever writes about male politicians and it's bullshit

this is largely the truth but it just sorta reminded me of that brief news thingy about Obama dyeing his hair
posted by Hoopo at 2:24 PM on July 4


I know Tom and Lorenzo garner a lot of mixed feelings here and elsewhere, but I deeply respect them for their decision to never, ever cover the clothes of women who hold or are running for office. When Dr. Biden, Mrs. Clinton, and Mrs. Obama hosted the International Day of Women thingadoo, they covered Dr. Biden's and Mrs. Obama's outfits and said not one word about Clinton's. This was raised in the comments, so they edited the post to say "We haven't discussed Hillary Clinton's outfit here because she is the goddamn Secretary of State." They didn't discuss Palin's wardrobe even when it was a scandal, they don't discuss Warren's now. Because they don't discuss the outfits of their male counterparts.
posted by KathrynT at 2:41 PM on July 4 [16 favorites]


I see nasty stuff posted everywhere all the time attacking Michele Bachmann, Sarah Palin and Ann Coulter based on their appearances and/or sexuality.

And WOW if there is one thing I would like to communicate to the progressive men of my acquaintance, it's to cut this shit out. When you use gendered slurs to refer to women with whom you disagree, what you're saying is that my equality is conditional upon your approval. If you think women are people, you think ALL women are people, even the abhorrent ones.
posted by KathrynT at 2:43 PM on July 4 [24 favorites]


Palin had it bad, though not as bad as she complained about. (I think lipstick on a pig is fine, maybe I'm wrong.) The issues relating to the pregnancies was definitely offensive beyond belief, but they opened themselves up to it a little by remaining silent on the daughter's pregnancy when the Internet was poised to see it anyway. Coulter gets it bad, but she's a professional troll who begs for any sort of attack. I don't put too much blame on people for reacting poorly when they are trolled, though they have to be accountable in the end. Not fair to put transgender women in the crosshairs in the process. Bachmann I haven't seen too much of a gendered attack against her (Am I forgetting a particular event or meme?), she is so crazy people just focus on the crazy. Her husband has certainly been the target of bigoted attacks though which put non-gender conforming men in the crosshairs.

All in all, people need to try to just react to ideas instead of the superficial. The left spends too much time watching The Daily Show or Colbert (I'm guilty here) and engages politics as a joke as a coping mechanism for how terrible it is. At some point you have to let that go and focus on business, especially when the mockery is offensive and putting innocent people in your sights.
posted by Drinky Die at 5:58 PM on July 4 [1 favorite]


I went back to look at the lipstick on a pig thing since I brought it up, because I realize there are contexts in which it is definitely not okay. For example, if Obama had said the Palin selection was just putting lipstick on a pig it would be implying Palin was only up there to put an attractive face on McCain's campaign. There is some truth to the idea she was selected in part because of relative youth and beauty, but it's unfair to entirely dismiss what had been a pretty succesfull politician at the time on those terms, and much more likely that sort of dismissal would be aimed at a woman.

This was the context:

LEBANON, Va. — "That’s not change," Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said of what Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., is offering, laying out how McCain and President George W. Bush agree — in Obama’s view — on economic policy, foreign policy, health care policy, etc., etc.

"You know, you can put lipstick on a pig," Obama said, "but it’s still a pig."

The crowd rose and applauded, some of them later telling reporters* that they thought Obama had been alluding to Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin’s ad lib during her vice presidential nomination acceptance speech last week, "What’s the difference between a hockey mom and a pit bull? Lipstick."


I thought at the time (now that I refresh my memory) and maintain now that it's a mighty big stretch to connect those comments to Palin. McCain was offering the same thing as Bush and changing nothing but superficial elements. That's why Obama said it. He's too good a politician to insult Palin like that just for cheap points and the idea that he was doing that just makes no sense.

Sorry to write so much about it when nobody but me brought it up, but I thought it was worth being clear on it because it's the biggest thing I remember that was interpreted at the time as a gendered attack on Palin. She obviously did take a lot of gender based abuse from the left, I am not trying to deny that.
posted by Drinky Die at 6:52 PM on July 4 [2 favorites]


Sarah Kendzior is awesome.
posted by limeonaire at 9:51 PM on July 4 [1 favorite]


So nobody remembers John Edwards and his $400 hair cut?
posted by NortonDC at 11:19 PM on July 4


And right now Texas is giving us "I lament the fact that our governor [Rick Perry] could now pass for a West Coast metrosexual and has embarrassed us all with his sartorial change of direction."
posted by NortonDC at 11:25 PM on July 4


Well, there was the time that Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a dumb twat.
posted by LindsayIrene at 6:21 AM on July 5 [1 favorite]


So nobody remembers John Edwards and his $400 hair cut?

I'm of two minds about that. First, it's the tactic highlighted in episode 1 of Mad Men: as long as something is true about one person (or product), it doesn't matter if it's true about everyone (or everything) else in the category so long at you can make the connection in people's minds to that One. It's just like the focus on Obama using a Teleprompter. Every politician uses a Teleprompter. Every politician has a budget for personal styling. John Edwards: he's toasted!

Second (and this somewhat contravenes the first point, but not totally), the likelihood is that other pols are not spending nearly that much on a single haircut--Edwards was a remarkable anomaly. But back to the women:

The Janet Napolitanos and Janet Renos of the world, powerful Cabinet-level officials like Power without the requisite princess factor, are not accorded similar treatment. The grandmotherly Janet Yellen may be the most powerful woman in the world now that she is head the Federal Reserve, but she probably will not be posing in a satin cocktail dress anytime soon. And is that a bad thing? It is hard to say whether this lack of interest is a problem, given that even the most flattering profile ultimately, in its obsession with appearances, diminishes a woman’s power.

What's interesting about these counter-examples is that they are all best known as appointees. Napolitano is the only one I'm aware had served in elective office before--as governor of Arizona--and the elected official I think most fully contravenes the princess complex is Senate fixture Barbara Mukulski...who doesn't even get mentioned here. Her power is ignored. If the best thing that can happen to a female role model is that she's basically erased from public view, I'd say that is a problem.
posted by psoas at 8:00 AM on July 5 [2 favorites]


I read an interview with Napolitano where she said almost every interviewer asked her if she was a lesbian. Mikulski has served in Congress longer than any other woman ever. She doesn't have to deal with princess talk because she is the queen.
posted by kat518 at 8:14 AM on July 5


So nobody remembers John Edwards and his $400 hair cut?

I think that was more about him spending $400 on something that most men spend probably a negligible amount on. So more about him being out of touch and vain than about his actual looks.

Bachmann I haven't seen too much of a gendered attack against her (Am I forgetting a particular event or meme?)

Yes.

Well, there was the time that Bill Maher called Sarah Palin a dumb twat.

Bill Maher is an abhorable human being and I despair when my liberal friends talk about him favorably.
posted by triggerfinger at 10:44 AM on July 5


« Older The tasteless history of the peeing Calvin decal...  |  Reddit user FredFltStn runs a ... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments