Jill Filipovic

Congressional Babes

Last week on my blog we had a short conversation about hyper-sexualized younger women, and why coming down on them is a little bit unfair. Now, the LA Times gives us this article about Rep. Loretta Sanchez, a Congresswoman who is, according to the paper, is being "tested on whether her reputation will be more coquette or congresswoman." Because Lord knows the earth would shatter if she were both a female politician and a human being. This one should probably be filed under "women can't win" because, well, we can't. And this illustrates it. The fact is that most women, like most humans, do seek positive reinforcement for both their accomplishments and their appearance. There's nothing inherently wrong about wanting to be attractive; the problem, of course, is that women are as a class expected to be "attractive" in a very particular way, and are punished (socially and financially) if they don't invest the requisite time, effort and money into squeezing themselves into a narrow feminine mold. If the feminine mold you squeeze into is the one that many younger women are presented with -- the hyper-sexualized Girls Gone Wild ideal -- then you cannot be taken seriously. If the feminine mold you squeeze into is the one that many female politicians are presented with -- the male-impersonating-but-slightly-softer ideal -- then you cannot be attractive, and can just barely be a "woman." Culturally, "sex" equals "female." When we comment that "sex sells" in advertising, what we actually mean is "women's bodies sell." Because "sex" ads don't actually depict a sex act; they depict thin women with big boobs as a stand-in for intercourse. And so real-life women, outside of ads, begin to look a whole lot like "sex." The mainstreaming of pornography (see American Apparel ads) and showing "normal" women as man-pleasing sexbots doesn't help the situation. "Professional" women on TV and in ads are also sexy, and are cute career girls mainly to give the office some sex appeal. But real-life professional public women must be decidedly un-sexy, to the point where any recognition that they're living in female bodies -- because, remember, the female body = sex -- is a scandal. And because the public face of "sex" is a semi-naked woman and sex is publicly understood in a heteronormative male-centric way (with "sexy" meaning "performed behaviors to bring men pleasure"), the public professional woman cannot recognize that sex is part of her life, and that sexual desire and pleasure is healthy, normal and good. And so women and girls grow up knowing that if we want to be attractive, we have to do it in a male-centric way. We can be smart and sexy, but sexy has to come first. Unless we want to be primarily valued for our intelligence -- and then any effort to be sexual, or any admission of normal sexual desire, must go by the wayside. Instead, we have to embrace the "smart woman" ideal, of pearls and stiff haircuts and perfect make-up and power suits (with heels, of course). All the trappings of femininity are still there; all the expensive feminine investments must still be made; but they're made in the name of "success" rather than simply beauty. Of course, in real life, plenty of women manage to blend the two ideals, or even largely escape them. But for women in the public eye, there is a choice between which kind of feminine you're going to embrace. And for women and girls, there are few positive female role-models who seem to encapsulate all of the important aspects of their lives. I can't speak for all women, but I know that in my life, sex is important. It's not more important than school or work, but it's something that matters. It's not something I want to pretend doesn't exist. It's not something that I think needs to be co-opted in an extremely unhealthy way by advertisers and pornographers, and otherwise shamed and hidden by social conservatives. There needs to be a happy medium -- a recognition of sex as good, normal and healthy, and something that many people value in addition to work, school, and their other accomplishments. But when public women step out of the mold, they get smacked down.
Was this a glimpse of Loretta Sanchez, siren, a politician known for her strenuous workout regimen and fondness for come-hither heels? Or was this Loretta Sanchez, harried congresswoman, too wrapped up in important national issues to take a break in the name of modesty? Few members of Congress, if any, are such a walking Rorschach test. In the decade that Sanchez has represented central Orange County, the Democrat has been viewed alternately as a masterful fundraiser, legislative lightweight, political mentor, headstrong politician, leading Latina voice and one of Congress' "babes." Her latest headline-maker, quitting the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, mixes two familiar elements in Sanchez's career: politics and the risque.
Compared to, say, Hillary Clinton, who is a ball-busting lesbian because she isn't feminine or sexy enough. Which is the only way that she's taken seriously. The whole thing is exhausting. Cross-posted at Feministe.

2 Comments

jessie

I recently met LA City Councilwoman Wendy Greuel.  Among her other accomplishments: she’s one of only a handful of women in the whole country across all political offices to hold office while pregnant and give birth while elected.  She was the first such person to serve on LA City Council.

Legal Eagle

In Massachusetts we had the nation’s first pregnant governor, Jane Swift, who had twins while in office circa 2001. The examples of Greuel and Swift suggest a distinguishable, third mold that professional women are fit into: mothers. These are women who are gendered (as opposed to the figure of the almost-a-man, “ball-busting” female professional) but they are not exactly sexualized. Far fewer commentators seem to lust after the “sneaker-wearing soccer moms” swept into office in the Senate last decade than after Loretta Sanchez. There is the emerging prominence of the MILF archetype which melds sexpots (Sanchez) + soccer mom (Swift) into a hyperfeminine hybrid that may become the new, singular alternative to the de-sexed ball-buster. I can’t say I’m looking forward to that. Seems like the MILF mold will only add layers of expectation, to ding me if I’m sexy but not nurturing, or vice versa. Since frankly, I am neither sexy nor maternal, I guess I’ll have to be a ball-buster. Sigh.

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