The thing about writing a blog on style in politics is that one’s mind surely goes to women’s fashion right off the bat. I was certainly well aware of the fact when I started talking about this blog to friends. I was pretty adamant that I wasn’t going to go down that path. And I purposely started this whole thing focusing on male politicians. There’s a vicious sort of past-time that’s grown up with social media–borne of those red-carpet attack-a-thons that surround celebrity awards shows–that makes the whole issue of style and famous people a bit of a sticky wicket if you want to keep things from spiralling quickly into bullying and crudeness.
But here’s the thing. Women’s fashion–in the normal world anyway–is typically more interesting than men’s. I remember when I was in high school and competing in the Sear’s Drama Festival, we used to make fun of the private school kids who could only express their personality through their shoes (this coming from the skinny little drama kids dressed in oversized men’s shirts and neon stockings, trying to channel Cyndi Lauper–sigh). For the most part (male) politicians pretty much have ties and shoes–although, younger politicians like Pierre Poilievre and Justin Trudeau are definitely introducing a bit of style in the HoC. I’ll return to Poilievre and Trudeau in the coming weeks.
English: Personal photo of Belinda Stronach taken at Golf Rocks charity event, Toronto, Sept 2008 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
My concern this week is how to go about talking about style and women in politics. And I don’t know the answer yet. I hope some people will weigh in and comment on this piece to help me out. I remember years ago reading with relish the articles about Belinda Stronach’s shoes and where she shopped for her snappy outfits. I admired this young woman, who, yes, is uber-privileged and whose politics I didn’t agree with. But she was a young woman, who wasn’t particularly media articulate yet, who had really fun fashion sense and she had stepped into the fray. Watching her, I thought that a political career was actually a possibility for a girl.
So I see myself as a feminist. Certainly educated and engaged in the political scene, but there was such a backlash from feminists about Stronach’s treatment by the mainstream media! I felt a bit ashamed of my interest in her gorgeous shoes and lot confused about just how we women should engage with fashion. So-called “third-wave” feminism, which blossomed in North America under Ally McBeal and Sex in the City allowed us feminists-who-like-shoes permission to claim the name and give up the Birkenstocks. I have nothing against Birkenstocks. But I really love designer shoes! And I really do think of myself as a feminist, in a time when a lot women refuse to do so. Not surprisingly, I suffered a little existential angst at the time. And traces of the malaise are obviously present in this post.
Recently Salon.com writer Irin Cameron argued that if White House counsel Kathryn Reummler “wanted to be taken seriously, she should have gone barefoot.” Cameron decries Reummler’s treatment in the Washington Post by Juliet Eilperin in this piece called A White House Counsel Known for Her Shoes.
Cameron also cites this study by the feminist political group nameitorchangeit.org. According to their study, any kind of media description of women’s fashion gives women politicians’ male opponents an edge, whether the coverage is positive or negative. Name It or Change It is dedicated to acting as a media watchdog on coverage of American women politicians. Their study is obviously biased, and I can’t assess how scientific it is from what’s posted on their website, but the study does suggest one thing: media coverage AND media consumers/audiences are sexist. Both sides hold women politicians up to a different style standard. And the group argues it affects how women fare in the political arena. Cameron’s suggestion is to put a moratorium on referring to women’s fashion sense until there is more equality in all levels of government.
Of course, Canada and the US are quite different in audience reception, expectations and reporting. But not so different that Name It or Change It can’t be relevant to a certain degree.
I can’t help wondering if this is a chicken-and-egg sort of thing. Before Stronach, I pretty much thought that women in politics had to be willing to play to an unwritten male code. She had to be tough and aggressive and certainly uninterested in fashion or style. Yes, women CAN be aggressive and strong. I am. I also like shoes… alot! And I’m soft-spoken. And I sometimes giggle when I’m nervous. Men don’t do those things typically, and maleness is the norm of politics. So when Hilary Clinton (who still gets attacked all the time about her looks) or Kim Campbell or Kathleen Wynne are successful in politics, women like me think, “Oh well, I can’t play that game. I’m out.” They play well in the boys’ sandbox.
Maybe we need to change the toys in and the parameters around the sandbox? Elizabeth May is one who comes to mind, and I’ll talk about her soon. But let me know. What do you think about women, femininity and participating in the official political realm? I’d love to hear your thoughts.