Palin's Clothes and Female Political Expectations

>> Saturday, October 25, 2008

A topic making the rounds of the great and expansive internet is Sarah Palins expenditures on clothing and makeup. She has spent almost 200k on those two categories since being chosen as the vp candidate for the Republican ticket. There are a number of lines of thought on the topic including one that the entire matter is irrelevant, one that justifies her actions on the basis of expectations for female politicians and one that holds that the expenditures matter and that she should not be excused.

First the who cares argument courtesy of yahoo answers

So, she has expensive clothes. Whoopty friggin' do. I don't see Obama wearing rags. Why doesn't the media get off of her rear end about this?

So why is it important that she spent so much money on the clothes? Simply the hypocrisy of claiming to be a hockey mom, a regular gal and then running up a tab that far exceeds the amount of money that an average person makes in a year for the span of a couple months. The spending on appearances only reinforces the theme that the gop is not about substance but about appearances. Palin was picked not for her ability to govern or her policy but because she is a conservative who happens to be pretty and can filibuster a question. She is essentially a campaign ornament, a gilded VP candidate.

The other aspect of this argument that has been played up is the donor base's outrage. I think they have a decent argument here. It is not about the fact that the expenditure is totally illegitimate. Palin needs to be outfitted and a hair and makeup person could also be requires. The problem is that the McCain campaign has been getting killed in advertising. They are having to cut back in some swing states and shift those resources to formerly solid Bush States. The donors seem to think that the money spent on outfitting palin could have been better spent on ads etc. This is supported by the McCain camps reliance on robo-calls a tactic that traditionally flies under the radar and has the added benefit of being very cheap. As McCain lost a lot of the media good will during the course of the campaign he lost the free positive advertising that went with it. Now he has to fight the negative narrative with limited resources. The donors dont see the expense as justified.

There is clearly an issue here. The defense must consist of more than the terse response of McCain that she needed the clothes. The one i find most grounded in legitimate thought is this one from The Debate Link

To my mind, the burden being put on Gov. Palin is just an extreme version of the Jespersen dilemma. Jespersen was a female bartender working for Harrah's who was forced, under new grooming regulations, to wear makeup to her job. This imposed an additional hurdle to her entering the workforce: though men also had grooming requirements, they were generally less expensive to maintain than those given to women. In such a case, women are being penalized upon entering the workforce solely for being women: that second X chromosome means that they can be required to shell out more as a threshold requirement before they are allowed to compete for the same job men are going after. Likewise, Gov. Palin, because she's a woman, has to spend a lot more time and resources on her attire and appearance before she can compete as an equal in the political arena.

From a feminist perspective (which wants Gov. Palin to lose, but not because she is hobbled from competing as a woman), there are two angles of attack on this. On the one hand, you could indict the norms of appearance that require so much more out of women than men. Alternatively, one could (perhaps provisionally) accept those norms, and demand offsets so that the costs of their enforcement do not fall on women but on some other party. For example, if Harrah's Casino wants to demand women alter their appearance above and beyond their requirements for men, it could be forced to pay for the difference in value (I imagine if that requirement did exist, the gender-differential would be eliminated quite rapidly).

The Jespersen discussion is valid in this case and as it relates to politics in general. The biggest and most oft cited case is going to be that of Sen. Clinton. The constant focus on her pant suits, her laugh, her cleavage, her ankles, her hair, was all incredibly patronizing and sexist. The problem is that Sen. Clinton may not be the best example of women in political arena despite her ground breaking candidacy. She is a very unique figure in american political history having been the first lady. Her relationship with the press was formed on that basis and imo has never been a good one. Discussions of appearance and double standards between genders need to include discussions of female politicians as a class. That means including barbara boxer, kay baily hutchison, darcy burner, nanci pelosi, lois capps, kathleen sebelius etc. Are these women receiving the same type of strict scrutiny in terms of wardrobe choices? How much of the flak that clinton takes over this is directly attributable to her relationship with the press? Searching around the internet Clinton is actually synonymous with pantsuit in a way no other female politicians are. For the complete defense of the focus on female politicians appearence there is this article in the times from last august,

It is precisely because our interior selves are essentially inscrutable (most of us can’t unscramble the psychological coding of our spouses much less the machinations and motivations of public figures) that we depend so much on surface clues. The whole superficial shebang — from hairstyles (who can forget Hillary’s little-girl headband?) to accessories (remember the fuss about Cherie Blair’s pricey Tanner Krolle handbag?) — provides us with the contextual tools to read the Other, the person who is not us, be it the stranger across the room or the stranger angling for political office. Power pearls and multipurpose, dashingly knotted scarves define Nancy Pelosi’s crisply efficient approach to getting work done; a Joan of Arc white suit or starched white blouse complemented Ségolène Royal’s newly capped teeth, lending her Socialist program a purist glow (but didn’t save her from her own plodding rhetoric); and a curve-ball glimpse of cleavage on a contender who normally favors black pantsuits added a touch of coyness to Hillary’s slightly humorless demeanor.

When it comes to women who seek power, the pressure to create a recognizably consistent persona (whether authentic or fake-authentic) under the distorting glare of television close-ups and digitalized replays only intensifies. Increasingly these days, pixels tell the all-too-easily fragmented story. The trick is to make those little square-shaped microdots that appear on our various and endlessly proliferating screens cohere into a simulation of verisimilitude, into something approaching a Chuck Close portrait rather than a Seurat-like haze of Pointillist impressionism. The wrong footwear can decompose the whole picture — Ségolène clicketyclacking around the slums of Chile in stilettos or Condoleeza Rice wearing what one commentator called her “butchy boots” — leaving us stuck with unmatching pieces of a puzzle.

We study our female politicians as closely and obsessively as we do in part because they still remain something of an anomaly — we are, quite simply, less used to women standing in the spotlight demanding our close attention — and in part because their costuming is less homogenized than men, offering up an abundance of opportunities for inductive analysis: we study their shade of lipstick, we listen for a note of defensive shrillness in their voice, we infer, we project, we accept or discount official positions for reasons that are neither fully conscious nor even rational. Camille Paglia’s snide response to Hillary’s performance at an early Democratic debate focused almost exclusively on her manner of communicating by way of a facile and highly speculative reading of the family dynamics that shaped her: “In the second half, she overplayed her hand and began to intrude and domineer. What was surfacing in Hillary was the old family psychodrama of the daughter contemptuously outflanking her befuddled, resentful, mediocre brothers at the dinner table. It wasn’t a pleasant sight — and all too reminiscent of the bullying Rosie O’Donnell compulsively hogging the spotlight on ‘The View.’ ”

I recommend reading the whole article if only to see why people view sexism in the media. the entire piece is simply a series of excuses about why the media is allowed a double standard in assessing womens clothing and appearance. It might be one of the worst articles i have read in a long while. All of this seems to lend credence to the Jesperson argument and credence to Palin's choice to spend a fortune on clothing. However Palin is not dealing with the same type of preconceived notions that Clinton, Sebelius and other female politicians do.

Palin deals with the opposite end of the spectrum. Palin has played into the womens appearance stereotype. Nobody is arguing that she should not spend a decent amount on appearance, after all being on tv and in front of large crowds demands that the politician look put together. However, there was no cause to spend that kind of money on the clothes. Professional women across the country manage to outfit themselves in a style that would certainly serve a politician for far less. Palin is far too concerned about appearances. He problem is that people view her as a diva, a pretty but empty vessel.

By spending such a large amount on clothes palin only accentuates this. had she instead chosen to go the subdued route of simple navy and black pantsuits i really doubt that her appearance would have been a recurring issue. Instead the RNC chose to accentuate her looks, go with high style and a nontraditionally professional look. Palin could certainly have gotten away with a simple look to emphasize her policy skills, had she had any. The equivalent example is if male politicians went around wearing lavender or camel colored suits. Women with command of policy and who are more than competent at their jobs seem to do fine with a professional dress, for example Gov Sebelius who won Topeka's best dressed female in 2005,

Topping their lists for Best-Dressed Man and Best-Dressed Woman were Arnold Downing Sr., of Topeka, marketing and events coordinator at Harrah's Prairie Band Casino, and Gov. Kathleen Sebelius.

Sebelius says she does her own shopping.

"And I really like to shop, but don't get much time anymore. Most of my purchases are done in person," she said.

The one item of clothing she wouldn't give up are her running shoes.

"They must fit right and provide support, or you end up with too many aches and pains," Sebelius says.

Women all over the country win elections without spending all of their income on clothes. Palin more than any other female politician in history is being judged on her policy more than her appearance and what she wears. People did not speculate about her clothes after her couric interview, it was her train wreck answers. I think the jesperson argument has validity for many women but the simple discrepancy between what is required for other women professional women and what palin spends makes it less persuasive in this case.


O-le,O-le, O-le, O-le! O-le, O-le!

  © Blogger template Sunset by 2008

Back to TOP