Physical beauty and professional competence in women

eyesnotdownhereIt’s not just sexist men who judge physically attractive women who presume to compete for jobs–it’s pretty much everyone, apparently.  Go read this strange missive on “Cleavage and the Job Market,” straight from Laurie Fendrich’s disturbed psyche about a young woman who recently got a job for which there were 500 applicants:

The article reports that Mr. Kelsey was “immediately impressed” when Ms. B[****] came in on the second day of interviews. “Dressed in a conservative business suit, Ms. B[****] patiently answered all of the 100-plus questions,” we learn. Mr. Kelsey “liked that she remained consistent in her answers and showed independence.”

Uh, anybody ever heard about how a picture tells a thousand words? Forget reading the article. Instead, click “Enlarge” on the Times’ photograph of Ms. B[****] — who is facing us — sitting across from Mr. Kelsey, whom we see only from the back.

Does anyone need to have me point out the obvious? That’s a spicy bit of cleavage peaking up above what looks like a nice tight black Lycra top—the kind that clings to the chest the way Cling Wrap hugs a cheese ball. Note the body language (being female, I hereby assert my expertise in interpreting females). Ms. B[****] is leaning ever so slightly forward toward Mr. Kelsey, smiling a big, feisty, all-American smile. And why not? She got the job. Not for Mr. Kelsey any of those lumpy-looking men in the other picture (to see what I mean.

(H/t reader Lance.)  Huh?  “[A] spicy bit of cleavage peaking up above what looks like a nice tight black Lycra top—the kind that clings to the chest the way Cling Wrap hugs a cheese ball.”  (Is anyone else creeped out by the fact that this writer uses all of this gustatory language, as though she’s serving this young woman up for us like a canape?)  Was the New York Times photographer there for her initial interview?  Should having boobs disqualify you for a $13-an hour job as an administrative assistant?  My guess is that she’s the typical sex and age demographic who usually works in this kind of a job.  What’s the deal with all of the hostility directed towards this young woman?  (What are women with boobs supposed to do–wear eighteenth-century stays?)

goingrougeThe question of attractive women and professional competence has been on my mind again with the news that The Nationis publishing a book of essays about Sarah Palin called Going Rouge on the day that her book, Going Rogue, is published next month.  (Get it?  Rouge is a cosmetic, and girls wear makeup, so since Palin is a girl she must wear makeup!  Ha-ha?)  I really don’t understand why this woman drives so many lefties nuts:  she wasn’t president or vice-president, she didn’t start an illegal war/let New Orleans drown/try to kill Social Security/loot the federal treasury on behalf of Haliburton.  She’s not standing in the way of fixing health care/Afghanistan/global climate change.  Yes, she had the nerve to run for vice-president–so what?  Someone had to do it, right? 

Yet the reaction to Palin’s presence on the national political stage has always been so disproportional, and so focused on her beauty and her body.  Oh, well:  just more evidence that the left is just as likely to seize on sexist ideas and tropes as the right, just as many women will grab an opportunity to slam another woman if they think there’s something to be gained (if only a false sense of moral, political, or haberdashorial superiority.)

0 thoughts on “Physical beauty and professional competence in women

  1. I really don’t understand why this woman drives so many lefties nuts…. Yes, she had the nerve to run for vice-president–so what? Someone had to do it, right?

    Umm… it was the WAY she ran for Vice President: by pandering to the worst impulses of the far-right Republican base while spreading venom and slander about her opponents. And she’s continued to spout outright lies about healthcare reform, and been adored for it on the right. And that f#@king book is at the top of the bestseller list. Palin strikes me as extremely dangerous for the cultish worship she’s aroused on the right, and I think it’s odd that you don’t see it. Just because some of the attacks on her are sexist and ad hominem doesn’t mean that there aren’t real reasons to deplore Palin as a public figure.


  2. I don’t think the focus on Palin’s looks necessarily must be read as sexism. I think it’s as simple as the fact that people are strongly compelled by beauty, and few would argue that Palin is not a beautiful woman. There have also been many commentaries on the beauty of the Obamas as a family. I will confess that, though I heartily detest Palin (she seems to possess the very same combination of pride in ignorance and right-wing reactionary ideology as Bush II), I nevertheless find her luminously beautiful. And I think it’s simply human nature to be engaged by physical beauty wherever it occurs.

    The more intriguing story, I think, occurs on the opposite side: why putatively “unattractive” women like Hillary Clinton (who is not actually unattractive, but who is not a beauty either) are pilloried for their physical deficiencies while middle-aged, unattractive men never are scolded for their lack of sex appeal.


  3. I was always more intrigued about the “inexperience” label and that idea that it was laughable to put her on the ticket in the first place. Granted in her case she seemed to live down to it, but on the day she was announced, that was all in the future. In contrast, I never heard it directed against Mitt Romney.


  4. Looks-and-hiring note: watching the PBS special on Gustavo Dudamel’s debut as music director of the LA Phil, I was struck by how many women and people of color were in the orchestra–not population parity, especially for Southern California, but a huge step forward from the way major symphonies used to look. From my acquaintance with the world of professional musicians, the key is the system of “blind” auditions: candidates for orchestra spots aren’t seen by the judges, and they’re required to remove their shoes lest the sound of high heels disclose the wearer’s gender. Such a simple change, yet it’s brought this dramatic transformation. Of course, a generous, and egalitarian, music education system (Finland and Venezuela are good examples) has to supply the candidate pool; still, who gets picked should depend, as it now increasingly does, on how you play your axe, and nothing else.


  5. As a gamer, I’m amused by the Going Rogue/Going Rouge juxtaposition. Many games have a thief-class known as a rogue and you just know that you’ve got a clueless or too-impatient player when they throw a line into the zone chat like “Level 78 rogue LFG” (Looking for Group). I consider Palin the political equivalent of those impatient and overly cocky gamers who’s sure that her couple months in Alaska more than qualify her to be VP. (That experience could be an asset, if properly applied. Whether she did that or not is another question.)

    But getting back to your larger question, the commentary from Fendrich in the Chronicle blog is disturbing, the way that she buys into the misogyny that’s out there. Women, she out-right says, are always using their wiles to get ahead. Women get jobs not for their qualifications, but by flashing a little cleavage. What holds for my statement about one woman should be generalized to all.

    Really? Give me a break! Apparently the one thing that unites western culture is the sense that women are always a bit too uppity and could use a good smackdown on general principles. Well-groomed? You lousy temptress. Severely professional? Too formal and distant. Frumpy? Who’d want her?


  6. I’m not convinced that the Nation book should be assumed to be sexist, either–maybe I’m mistaken, but I had read the title as a reference to the whole “lipstick on a pig” thing from the campaign season.

    Palin’s interesting because she’s held up as an example when media entities and whatnot want to have a conversation about What a “Career Woman” Should Be. Palin is often, I think, portrayed as an example of the new post-feminism because she’s a pro-life mother of several in addition to being a former half-term governor. Of course, then, the response is that she and her fans place a stain of disapproval on those women who don’t choose to have a family or live their lives in accordance with conservative moral values. I think it is worth looking at what her career implies about how our society perceives women today.


  7. I can’t speak to the content of the book, but once again, a media outlet chooses to focus on makeup and appearance. Apparently, this never gets tiresome when it comes to strategies to marginalize and delegitimize women!

    Shane, your response to my post is classic crazy Palin-hating. I wrote, “she wasn’t president or vice-president, she didn’t start an illegal war/let New Orleans drown/try to kill Social Security/loot the federal treasury on behalf of Haliburton. She’s not standing in the way of fixing health care/Afghanistan/global climate change. And then you wrote “Umm… it was the WAY she ran for Vice President: by pandering to the worst impulses of the far-right Republican base while spreading venom and slander about her opponents. And she’s continued to spout outright lies about healthcare reform, and been adored for it on the right.

    Oooohhhh! She said mean things and things that weren’t true! And no politician in American history has ever done this befooooooore! Maybe you meant to say that you didn’t appreciate her “tone”?

    I think she’s a policy disaster–but it has nothing to do with her body, face, makeup, hair, glasses, children, sex life, snowmobiles, etc. And, since men running for president are regularly photographed hunting (John Kerry most recently, as I recall), I don’t see her hunting as a big issue. It’s not my thing, but it’s legal, so whatever.


  8. I don’t agree that disparaging commentary on physical appearance is limited to women in the American political sphere. And I think that candidates like Palin want it both ways, thus inviting commentary that transforms her into a media victim (i.e.: think of how many ways you can “read” the joke: “What’s the difference between a hockey Mom and pit bull? Lipstick!” – who, precisely, is drawing attention to her cosmetics?).


  9. It may not be *exclusively* deployed against women, but I think the past 2 years have shown that women candidates for national office are discussed so much, much more often in those terms than men are.

    I don’t think she was making fun of lipstick with that joke–I think she was making fun of hockey moms. (I hardly think you can say that uttering the word “lipstick” means that it’s perfectly OK to continually talk about any woman’s appearance.)


  10. And, let’s not forget: the real inspiration for this post was the discussion of the anonymous young woman who got a job in Indiana a few weeks ago. Does anyone think it’s acceptable to make about her appearance, cleavage, clothing, etc. a point of discussion? If it’s not OK for her, why is it OK for Sarah Palin?

    I think it’s dangerous for feminists and other lefties to engage in this kind of rhetorical strategy. We can’t say, “oh, it’s just Sarah Palin,” and think that language will stay in the box and won’t be used against us, too.

    This blog is profeminist and anti-misogyny, party invariant.


  11. I am with you on this, Historiann, and really glad you brought it up. I haven’t seen The Nation book either, but I am bothered by what appears to be clear evidence of Palin Derangement Syndrome emerging on the left. I’m no fan of Palin’s and hope she disappears from the national stage as quickly as she appeared on it. Still, I don’t get why the left feels compelled to go ballistic and to go gang up on her in such an obviously misogynistic way. It does recall the attacks on Hillary Clinton and suggests major ambivalence toward ANY powerful woman, regardless of party or politics.


  12. One of the other things that bothers me about the Fendrich article (probably because I am a man) is that it assumes that the school’s director was incapable of hiring on any basis other than “who shows the most cleavage.” That assumption creates a feedback loop that impugns his professionalism and contributes to a climate that excuses male managerial professionalism while casting aspersions on female applicants’ competence.

    After all, men are so powerless and incompetent that they have to hire the “best looking” woman–been like that since Adam and Eve–which likely means that whatever woman hired must have used her looks. Fendrich insults the school director by accusing him of malfeasance, then lets him off the hook b/c men are just patriarchal in that way–they can’t help it, ever since the down of time!

    That’s, of course, if we get past the heteronormative aspects of the post. Has it occurred to Fendrich that there’s a certain segment of the male population that might be immune the the charms of female cleavage? I won’t follow her lead and assume that I know anything about what/who the school director finds attractive or unattractive–I’m just sayin’.


  13. Thanks, Roxie: it seems like the left is making much more of Palin now than the right. (A lot of Republicans wish she would go away too.) And there are so many men who made actual decisions from position of authority who can be blamed for so much, much, much more than Palin! When she appeared on the scene, a huge number of people were relieved that they could dump on a woman, in spite of the overwhelming numbers of male Republicans who are responsible for the mess we’re in. Oh, well–cherchez la femme is always a popular strategy!

    John S.: great points. Would the author accuse an attractive young man of wearing tight pants in order to play up his package? That’s totally unimaginable, for so many reasons I can’t begin to list…


  14. Ms. Fendrich writes Who am I to say Ms. B**** wasn’t the “most qualified” for this particular position? I, for one, am the first to admit I wouldn’t know how to begin to sort through 500 applicants in any way that constitutes fairness.

    Indeed. The column strikes me as a very roundabout way to engage in some good ol’ fashioned slut-shaming. With friends like these, etc.


  15. So I’m not allowed to hate lying scumbags? Or I’m only allowed to hate the male scumbags? For what it’s worth, I have the same livid disdain for Glenn Beck, and John Boehner, and Eric Cantor, and Sam Brownback, and on and on and on. There are a lot of people for whom I have nothing but vitriol. Why should Palin be spared? And why should you assume that my dislike for her public persona is gendered?


  16. Somone once told me about a study that argued that attractive people tended to be more “successful”, i.e. had better jobs, got more promotions, and made more money. I’m not sure what their criteria was, but it seems to be that it is important to note that the study suggested both sexes benefited from this, yet we seldom hear complaints about men getting hired because of their looks. In fact, we seldom talk about their appearance at all when it comes to politicians or businessmen, yet for women, it seems to work against them no matter what.


  17. I’d also bet that there were plenty of other attractive female applicants in a pool of 500 (especially for what Historiann has pointed out is a traditionally feminized profession). (The “lumpy men” in the other picture are people attending the school where the hired candidate works, not other applicants – something Fendrich seems not to grasp, along with not recognizing the picture of the hired candidate wasn’t taken at the interview either.) So presumably there was something that set this candidate apart besides her top!

    I do think the vitriol directed at Sarah Palin is the same kind of thing, although I think I agree with PorJ about the lipstick comment – not that Palin was making fun of lipstick, but that the joke drew attention to the way that (apparently) being femme makes certain behavior okay in a way that it’s not when you’re not femme. But I guess it’s another damned if you do, damned if you don’t: if you’re a woman who tries to ignore the appearance-based crap, you can get screwed over, and if you try to engage with it and work it, you get screwed over too.


  18. I think it is worth noting, too, that one of the many rumors about Palin floating around at the time of the election (when her reputation no longer so….lustrous) involved her reception of McCain aids while wearing nothing but a hotel towel. I’ve never once read a similar description of a male politician.

    (When Obama was captured in a bathing suit, the emphasis was on his blackness, or his black maleness – see Wonkette’s discourse on the snorkel as phallus).

    With the job market looming, this is an interesting, bracing post. And it reminds me of a search here a few years back, where the boys in the final row of seats at a job talk couldn’t stop talking about the dusky tone of one candidate’s skin and the cut of her suit. We are a part of the world we write about and think about. I believe that was H-Ann’s point.


  19. And, to confess, I have worn tight pants to tilt the playing field with administrators and faculty. Tight shirts, too. A beard cam be intimidating to other men. My Dean, who is short, doesn’t like it when I stand right next to him. And it is amazing how a single lollipop, effectively deployed at a contentious meeting of our peers, can change everything.

    But it also strikes me that I can do this as a (straight) man and get away with it – that is, and not suffer for it, because the great bulk of representative material on (straight) men suggests a certain degree of disinterest in this kind of thing. No one would guess that I do this – my use of sexuality in this way is more than a little cognitively unmanageable.

    Whereas a woman who wears a low cut blouse is assumed to be a “tease,” and is quickly named a “scamp.”

    So maybe I shouldn’t be doing this? I don’t know.


  20. Lance–I’ve heard the towel story. Actually, male politicians and powerful leaders have frequently appeared undressed, underdressed, or otherwise indisposed to their courtiers/subordinates–but it’s not read as a sexual enticement, rather, it’s a statement that the person in question is so powerful that he can wear (or not wear) anything and do anything in front of anyone else and it doesn’t matter.

    Lyndon Johnson used to holler at his staff from the toilet, as well as make telephone calls while on the pot. And Louis XIV is famous for making proximity to the royal body in various stages of undress a high honor for his courtiers. Yet, Sarah Palin in a towel is “seductive,” no questions asked, no matter the longer context of the powerful political body in history.


  21. In addition to the larger points of society’s need to judge women on the basis of how they dress/ look, there is also a smaller point about how attractive women (especially young attractive women) aren’t permitted to be competent or qualified. Anyway who is beautiful and successful must have traded on her looks, in the same way that any successful African-American can only be successful through “affirmative action” (implicitly, an unjust “break” based on skin color that advantage him over white colleagues). I hear all the time when a woman gets a job it’s because she’s a woman (in academia, anyway); an attractive woman’s success produces even more vitriol. . . That article’s fixation on the candidate’s cleavage is repellent. And since we’ve been talking about “Mad Men” there is a creepy 1960-ish undertone to the article as well – secretaries are hired for their looks, because they are supposed to be sexually available to the men they work for.

    I agree with ej, too – male politicians, and men from all circuits of life, are often aided by their looks and sex appeal. These things are not considered illegitimate for men, improper or manipulative, though they are for women.

    The Palin case is one I feel more ambivalently about. While I agree with many of Historiann’s points about it, there was also the troubling way she was “packaged” by McCain’s people – she was clearly chosen because she was young and attractive and a woman, and these elements to her persona were in some ways “key” to how they represented and promoted her. That makes me understand a little bit more why the media went so crazy about those elements to her. (Especially thinking about how her camp constantly used gender as a way of attacking her critics – the reporters are “mean” to her because she’s a woman, she’s not getting a fair shake because she’s a woman. While there’s plenty of insightful commentary to make about the media and gender, those specific attacks were not among them, IMO, but rather attempts to silence criticism by turning her womanhood into a special, protected category in a way that creeped me out.)

    Yet at the same time I actually felt drawn to her partially because she was young and attractive and a woman. I don’t know what to do with this information, but there it is was. I found it refreshing to see a young mother, dressed well, on the national stage. Reflection of myself? I guess so, though I’ve never had that experience with politicians before and it’s not something that I value (having my president be like me in a gross, folksy GWB kind of way). But there was one interview especially, where she was just walking from her car to her house, in jeans and a hoodie, her baby under her arm – and I thought YES! This is what I’ve always wanted to see, a working mother, a real woman who dares to have a baby and be successful and be in public. I don’t know. I dug it. (Though I would never, ever vote for her.)


  22. Palin was picked because they wanted her to throw red meat to the base and because she didn’t have a record. I never saw any indication that she was picked *because* she was attractive or *because* she was a woman.


  23. Emma & all–Palin fit a number of criteria that McCain was looking for: young, solidly pro-life, and good with the right wing overall, plus a governor (& thus executive experience) but without much of an actual record. In these ways she was meant to compensate for McCain’s age and reputation as a squish with the right wing of his party. It was a bonus that she was a woman in 2008, but I don’t think it was fundamental: remember the other names of young governors who were named as possible McCain running mates? Jindal, Pawlenty, and (who else?) She was very much like them (Pawlenty has more experience than either Jindal or Palin), but for one thing: sex.

    I’ve always seen her in the mold of Dan Quayle, who was equally lightweight and mocked but never subjected to the kind of personal attacks Palin was, crossed with the typical dim-bulb Western governor, and we know that the Republicans love them some dim-bulb Western governors…

    I don’t have a single Dem woman friend who voted for McCain/Palin (contrary to the hopes that disillusioned Clinton primary voters would cross over), but I have some Republican women friends who got a LOT more excited about the ticket once Palin was named. Like perpetua, they liked the fact that they could see their lives reflected in hers.


  24. I don’t know about Palin’s sex not being fundamental – perhaps one can say it tipped the scales in her favor, precisely because, as Historiann mentions, there was hope that disaffected Clinton voters would change over (aided one imagines by McCain’s reputation as moderate). The media at least was obsessed with this reading of the choice. (In the same way that Jindal was “hot” not only because he’s a rising star in the party but because he’s young and a man of color.) There was a strange subtext put forward by the McCain campaign that the Democrats were hostile to women because Obama won, whereas the GOP was a more concerned about women’s issues. In a way they were harnassing the concerns that were raised about the treatment of Clinton and the misogynist attacks against her by the media et al. as a way of leveraging Republican hatred for the media in Palin’s favor. (Partially.) Anyway, that’s my read on the situation. And while they might have picked Palin anyway were she unattractive, I don’t think it’s a coincidence that they slickly packaged her with a stylist and a new wardrobe – they were clearly trying to create their own celebrity, again in counterweight to Obama’s charisma.


  25. On Palin, I think that her sex and race were the most significant factors, with the latter carrying much more weight. The GOP was hoping to peel off some “moderate” Dems upset with Clinton’s defeat (and with the media’s treatment of her candidacy). And, with perpetua, I also think that Jindal was really only under consideration because of his race. In the end, though, Jindal’s background played in favor of Palin’s candidacy–her particular brand of “whiteness” made her perfect for a “country first” campaign, while it might have been hard for the Indian-American Jindal to rail against “Barrack Hussein Obama.”

    I’m not sure if Palin gets on the ticket if she’s not a woman, or if Jindal’s white. I realize this sleights their qualifications and experience, but I think McCain really was playing something of a quota game here.(As for Pawlenty–I really am in the camp that thinks he just got punked, to throw the media off the trail.)

    There’s one other thing I think worth mentioning, especially with respect to the question of female voters seeing themselves in Palin. I think part of Palin’s appeal as a conservative female politician lay in her pro-life views were not an abstraction. According to her own narrative (I am going to take her at her word her), she knew after an amniocentesis about the likelihood of Trig having Down’s syndrome and elected to have him anyway. She “chose life,” as she has put it. So when faced with a difficult personal situation, Palin walked her political walk.

    I suspect that this decision resonated with many women voters who, for understandable reasons, see abortion in more concrete terms than male politicians often do. (Think McCain’s air quotes around “health of the mother”–I find it almost impossible to imagine any woman, no matter how pro-life, doing that.) I am from a very Catholic family, and I can say that Palin’s decision to give birth to a special needs child resonated with both the liberals and conservatives in our clan for very personal reasons (informed by their faith). For my Republican relatives, Palin’s choice made them far more enthusiastic about the ticket. For my Democratic relatives, they respected her for her decision (but not for her belief that abortion should be made illegal in similar cases). For lack of a better word, I think that Palin’s experience gave her an authenticity among some of the electorate on this very difficult topic.


  26. The Chronicle piece was silly. The young woman was dressed the way Stacy and Clinton of What Not to Wear would tell her to dress for an interview. She was asked 100 questions and she answered them. End. But on the larger question,I would guess that there is not a professional woman over the age of 30 that doesn’t have a sense of what she projects and how that fits with contemporary ideas of beauty and sexuality. And attractive doesn’t have to be sexy. We may fit or not fit, but we know, and on some level we play with that — whether it’s sexy, girly, or even butch. I’m pretty sure that politicians do the same. With the pantsuits, Clinton went to a very gender neutral style; Palin was deliberately sexy. Personally, I’ve always found the “I can be as sexy as I want, now take me seriously” a little weird, but that’s because when I’m at a job interview I’m not trying to pick people up. (I’m big on boundaries.)

    The ways in which current fashion focuses on women’s sexuality (and particularly breasts) drives me nuts. When I’m teaching, I don’t want to be wearing the fashionable “deep V”, even with a cami underneath so that the cleavage (such as it is) is not visible. As a historian, though, I wonder if that isn’t “fashion”. I remember my uncle telling me when I was in college that he found it hard that I didn’t wear a bra… never mind what people said about mini-skirts.

    Part of the bind that Perpetua refers to is how every woman navigates the tensions between being attractive and/or sexy (and these are not the same) and appearing competent.


  27. Historiann, you have this one absolutely correct. Don’t let the “oh but Palin was so ICKY” voices persuade you that the disgusting sexism pitched at her is okay (not that I think you will).


  28. Ann, thanks. One of the things that I found so false during 2008 was the argument that those of us who objected to the sexism deployed against Clinton and Palin were somehow overly invested in their campaigns, or worried about their hurt feelings. That was I think a major error. I didn’t care one way or the other about the *feelings* of either Clinton or Palin–they’re tough broads and can take care of themselves. I was more disturbed by the large numbers of people and media outlets I had formerly thought of as allies who didn’t give a second thought to using double-standards or totally sexist and sexualized language to critique/disparage/dismiss them. I didn’t care for Clinton’s or Palin’s sake, I cared for the sake of all of us.

    Susan–I know what you’re saying, totally. I went on sabbatical 2 years ago, and came back to find that everything in a “professional” wardrobe was low-cut! I use camis and the strategic deployment of scarves. (But the suit/shirt combo described above as “spicy” and like a cheese ball (!?!) was MUCH tamer than some of the so-called professional dresses, blouses, and sweaters I own.


  29. “I’ve always seen her in the mold of Dan Quayle, who was equally lightweight and mocked but never subjected to the kind of personal attacks Palin was.” Historiann, do we remember the same Dan Quayle? The one who was mocked for following a pastor who preached that an appropriately mated Christian couple have perfectly matched genitals? The one whose sister-in-law publicly affirmed that Dan’s and Marilyn’s genitals matched (meaning they had hot-rocket sex)? The press had a field day! And all of this long before there was the internets to make this kind of weirdness commonplace. I could go on, but I’ve made my point. I agree that the attacks on Sarah Palin focused unnecessarily on her looks: her intellect, record, and policy positions are sufficient fodder.

    And btw, Palin wasn’t making fun of hockey moms with the lipstick joke, she was praising them. (And not one of her daughters plays hockey.)


  30. Eeeeew–I guess we’re not thinking of the same Dan Quayle! (I was only 20 when he ran for VP, so I can’t say I was paying as much attention then as I do now to contemporary politics.) I had never heard of that story about his pastor’s theories about matching genetalia.


    I think you make a great point about how technology has changed the press coverage and public discourses about political figures. Has the swamp become more fevered, or is it just more evident to us because the non-peer reviewed internets reveal to us (and even encourage the further production of) more insults, ugliness, and bile?


  31. I was more disturbed by the large numbers of people and media outlets I had formerly thought of as allies who didn’t give a second thought to using double-standards or totally sexist and sexualized language to critique/disparage/dismiss them.

    Just so. The 2008 primary season was a political coming-of-middle-age for me. Jesse Jackson was running for the nomination when I first tuned in to national political campaigns. Seeing him in tears out there in Grant Park on election night; thinking about the arc of my mother’s life and how it informed her primary vote; bittersweet. Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.


  32. I thought you had given up on Palin, Historiann!

    First on the rogue/rouge, I took it as a cheap deconstructive move to destabilize the “rogue” claim made by someone who spent all that Republican fat cat money on the fancy rouge wardrobe.

    My problem with emphasizing the sexist dimensions of the many attacks on Palin is that you could make similar arguments on race for, say, Clarence Thomas. And while racism and sexism are always in play, I think people read a lot more into these characters and they become cyphers for all types of psycho-political investments. I would not emphasize sexism and Palin any more than racism and Obama. They are factors in the reading process (and sometimes the most important one) but not necessarily the master code for all interpretations.


  33. Pingback: Keeping up appearances: what about you? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

  34. I am even more disgusted by left-wing misogyny than I am by right-wing misogyny. And to be honest, your post reminds me that in my own blogging, I have probably focused unduly on right-wing misogyny and given left-wing misogyny a relative pass. Of course, this is because of my political inclinations.


  35. Oh, I am disappointed in the Nation. Though their media commentator, Eric Alterman, went through a period where it was obvious that mentioning that conservative commentator Ann what’s-her-name was thin & blond & wore short skirts was *part of the critique*. Disheartening, for darn sure.


  36. Thank you for this post. I’ve always thought Palin was treated extremely unfairly and caricatured in excess. For eg. I actually nodded along when she said ‘you can actually see Russia from parts of land here in Alaska’, because geographic proximity has ALWAYS been the underpinning of solid cultural understanding – through history. It’s far more logical an argument, than, say, someone stating his living in a foreign country for a year as a pre-teen as cause of being good at foreign policy as a result.
    She was called a bimbo for the former statement, but people agreed that Obama knew about foreign policy because he lived in Indonesia when he was 8. Obama called Clinton atrocious names, including D-Punjab – and no one accused him of bigotry.

    Susan: “With the pantsuits, Clinton went to a very gender neutral style; Palin was deliberately sexy”. Huh? How?? A skirt-suit is “deliberately sexy”? This is the kind of random slut-shaming that brought my jaw on the floor everyday last year. Was she wearing anything that an average woman employee in a law firm does not? I see women in skirt-suits EVERYDAY at work – and though I prefer pants myself, I do throw on a skirt once a week. PLEASE don’t tell me basic solid-color work skirts with standard heeled-pumps are now ‘deliberately provocative’ – thats like Polanski defenders saying the 13-year old was ‘coming on to him’ – it does.not.compute.


  37. I believe the Nation’s book title is a reference to a newscaster’s slip when Palin’s book was first announced. Can’t find the clip at the moment, but I believe it was an ABC person, possibly on Good Morning America, who announced the book deal and mispronounced “rogue” as “rouge.” Now you could say that was a Freudian slip on his part… anyway the Nation didn’t make it up.


  38. The point, I think, is that sexiness was part of the image that Palin was trying to project, in order to simultaneously appeal to female swing voters and “red-blooded” GOP males (the base).

    As for Chevalier’s comment on the geographical proximity of Russia and “cultural understanding,” I’m perplexed. It seems to me worth pointing out that:

    1) geographical proximity is often a source of strife rather than understanding


    2) the only people who live in the parts of Alaska anywhere near Russia are Inuits.


  39. Kevin–if a male political candidate had titled his book “Going Rouge,” and the newscaster made a slip of the tongue, it would have been a blip into the ether. The Nation may not have coined the term, but they’re choosing to perpetuate a slam that only makes sense because of Palin’s sex.

    I don’t think the McCain campaign had to work too hard to make Palin sexy–she’s very good-looking and has a great body, and she was never dressed inappropriately (always in suits or casual clothing that covered everything up, etc.) So, once again, what are women to do? If they look attractive, they’re accused of trying to use their sex appeal inappropriately, but if they don’t make up and dress up, they’re accused of frumpiness. There is no golden mean that any actual woman can live up to.


  40. There is no golden mean that any actual woman can live up to.

    Hillary had cankles and was inappropriately unsexy(especially when she was “flashing” her cleavage on the floor of the Senate) and therefore was a bad woman/candidate. Palin was a hot potato and was inappropriately sexy and therefore was a bad woman/candidate. But both of them wore clothing that was work appropriate and feminine.

    Women are made into anything that patriarchy needs them to be in any particular moment and consistency be damned. There is no “good woman” who can’t be made into some stereotypical “bad woman” in order to stymie her further advancement.


  41. I think the animosity towards Palin is rooted in the fires that Obama sparked during the campaign. Obama supporters got used to hating on women, and just kept at it. I think they thought they killed that particular beast (the beast being women who oppose Obama in races) and were just furious that it wasn’t dead yet. I’m astounded at the number of lefty sites where sexist rhetoric is now acceptable and intolerance of sexist rhetoric is seen as evidence of racism – or something like that.

    The fact of the matter is that Palin was not particularly right wing until recently. There’s lots of heresay but she got along well with Democrats in Alaska. She ran a far more honorable campaign than Obama did – by any objective standard. And she has more experience than Obama so it was bizarre to me that people supporting a part time state senator with no legislative accomplishments to his name were complaining about a governor being inexperienced. If Obama is qualified, then by the same standards, Palin is. Personally, neither of them measure up for me.

    I know they asked Palin what newspapers she reads. I wish to God someone would ask Obama if he has ever in his life read an economics text.


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