Like so many of us in recent months, Professor Alison Reiheld has dedicated large chunks of time to following the presidential election. In the wake of the conventions, she draws our attention to a less visible rhetoric, one that addresses not The Economy, but rather economies of gender and political performance.
The hubbub and excitement surrounding both national conventions in fall of 2012 has yielded some truly odd outlying moments. While the one which made the biggest splash in mainstream culture is likely Clint Eastwood’s talk with an empty chair representing Barack Obama at the Republican National Convention in Tampa, the media and pundits have picked up on some other items that are only tangentially related to the issues. One example is influential Republican John Sununu’s comments about Michelle Obama’s dress. Mrs. Obama’s sartorial choices have long been a subject of public attention (there are entire websites devoted to her fashion sense, such as http://mrs-o.com/). For her dedication to inexpensive American fashion design, Mrs. Obama was recently labeled the “anti-fashion fashion plate” by Buzzfeed, which went on to describe her fashion as “surprisingly relatable, likable, and not weird.” It reminds one of the attention to presentation which Jackie Kennedy received during her days as First Lady, attention which followed her all the days of her life. If you are not a dedicated follower of fashion and still know what a pillbox hat is, I suspect it’s due to media coverage of Jackie Kennedy.
So why do we care so much about a first lady’s fashion? It may just be the cult of celebrity which surrounds the President and other politicians. But there seem to be particularly strong expectations for conformity to specific ideas of femininity, even masculinity, for the spouses of those in the public eye and even for politicians themselves. For instance, while much attention was given to Sarah Palin’s own dress sense, much attention was also paid to her husband, Todd Palin, and his masculine exploits of snowmobile and dog racing (while, it should be noted, he at the same time put a lot of effort into parenting their children while Palin developed and maintained her political career).
Keeping this emphasis on gender presentation—for the spouses of candidates as well as the candidates themselves—in mind, it’s worth taking a look at Sununu’s comments and the recent response to them. Sununu, in making a larger claim that many lies and misrepresentations came out of the Obama campaign during the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, claimed that the alleged $350 price of the dress was more of the same, saying “Somehow I don’t think that’s the truth either.” Now, it seems to be possible that the alleged price is realistic since the designer, Michelle Reese, sells her creations for between $300 and $600. Some observers have gone on to question the price of Ann Romney’s Oscar de la Renta outfit, which sells for between $1,990 and $2,490 depending on the vendor. True, this question is not entirely separate from either of the campaigns—and thus, I propose, not entirely frivolous and sexist—since Democrats have chosen the narrative that the Romneys are wealthy folk out of touch with the needs of middle class folk, a narrative the Romneys are fighting back against with one of their new campaign slogans, “strengthening the middle class.”
But what does it mean that we focus so intensely on a candidate’s spouse’s dress (in the case of Sarah Palin, there was little talk of how her outfits compared with Joe Biden’s, but a great deal of talk about her outfits, their look, and their cost)? Or on the office holder’s or candidate’s clothing, when the candidate is female? Secretary of State Hilary Clinton was once asked who designed her pantsuit by the moderator of a panel, himself a reporter. Her reply: “would you ever ask a man that question?” With rare exception, the answer to her rhetorical question, I suspect, is “no.” As Alexandra Tellier put it when reflecting upon this instance, “What’s especially cringeworthy about this exchange is that just moments before, Clinton had addressed a young lawyer’s question about how women could succeed in today’s world.” Secretary Clinton’s response had in fact just pointed out how women are judged more harshly, including on irrelevancies such as details of appearance.
You might go off after reading this and give some thought to other aspects of gender presentation. Remember Todd Palin’s masculine pursuits? What of how Ann Romney portrayed herself as wife to Mitt, using what the Humphrey School of Public Affairs described as a 5th-grade vocabulary while Michelle Obama used a 12th grade vocabulary, according the same source, yet also portrayed herself in a traditionally feminine role of mother not only to her kids but to the nation (mom-in-chief, as some described it)? Mrs. Obama’s biggest projects as first lady have been the White House vegetable garden and related national anti-obesity efforts as well as taking care of the families of deployed service members. Are these traditionally feminine roles for both Mrs. Romney and Mrs. Obama problematic? How important is it to America that women with this level of exposure be feminine in the right kinds of ways? What does that say about our values? And should that be what we are saying? Suppose, as has happened recently with discussions of how Paul Ryan’s suits “make him look like a kid wearing his dad’s clothes”, men’s dress is also subjected to detailed scrutiny. Is that any kind of improvement? Especially when this, too, has to do with manifestations of gender ideals which are worth questioning?
Clothing judgments of politicians and of their spouses tend to fall more heavily upon females than upon males. And regardless, they embody values about gender presentation and ideals of masculinity and femininity. Such values and ideals deserve as much scrutiny as the tendency to focus on women over men.