Congressional Babes

Of course women can be sexy and political! Just smile, hike up your skirt, and vote!

Last week 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.

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25 comments for “Congressional Babes

  1. Magis
    March 5, 2007 at 12:49 pm

    Is Loretta the one that beat “B-1 Bob?”

  2. March 5, 2007 at 12:56 pm

    Part of what’s interesting to me in all this is thinking back to the 1980s — women were at that point finally becoming power players in the big boy world of finance. But they had to be manly in order to do it. Power suits were all the rage, all big shoulders and double-breasted plackets. Whenever a woman stepped out of that norm, she was questioned. My mother, for example, worked on wall street in the 1970s and was among the first women to trade and sell securities. She played with the big boys, but she did not become them. Of course, a major media outlet latched on to this and wrote an article about her. But not about her business savvy. Instead, they wanted to know where she got her hair cut, who designed her business attire, and about her marriage status.

    This was 30 years ago…but not that much has changed. And your use of the Hillary model vs. Loretta Sanchez model is a perfect example of how far we haven’t come.

  3. Nicki
    March 5, 2007 at 1:22 pm

    Thanks for this. As a business student, I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the same problem, and you’ve written it more clearly than I’ve ever been able to.

  4. March 5, 2007 at 1:27 pm

    This isn’t related, but I thought this was an interesting article on gender discrimination in Japan:

  5. Mnemosyne
    March 5, 2007 at 1:28 pm

    And, of course, the Times is falling into that other stereotype: the hot-n-spicy Latina, and can she really suppress her true nature and be all business like a good Anglo woman? It’s like they expect her to bust out in a Charo-style hoochie-coochie dance while she makes a speech in the House.

  6. Mnemosyne
    March 5, 2007 at 1:32 pm

    Because this was extra-super-special creepy coming from a reporter named Ashley:

    At the same time, she was shedding a red St. John Knits suit and shimmying into an ao dai, a traditional Vietnamese tunic and pants, for her next event. Meaning that she was telling a female reporter about her chairmanship of the House Subcommittee on Border, Maritime and Global Counterterrorism while wearing only pants and a black bra.

    Shame on Congresswoman Sanchez for being comfortable enough with her body that she would let another (presumably straight) woman briefly see her in her bra! My God, when Sanchez goes to the gym she probably changes her clothes right out in the middle of the women’s locker room instead of going into a bathroom stall like a decent woman!

    Get the poor reporter some smelling salts!

  7. kali
    March 5, 2007 at 1:37 pm

    Wasn’t Bill Clinton known for patting arms and gripping shoulders too? Was that flirtatious when he did it?

  8. Mr. X
    March 5, 2007 at 1:50 pm

    The fact is that most women, like most humans, do seek positive reinforcement for both their accomplishments and their appearance.

    Women are human?

  9. DAS
    March 5, 2007 at 1:51 pm

    It’s like they expect her to bust out in a Charo-style hoochie-coochie dance while she makes a speech in the House. – Mnemosyne

    Indeed. And this is where stereotypes are quite wrong. I, a non-Latino male, am probably far more likely to bust out in a Charo-style hoochie-coochie dance while making a speech — ’cause I’m just like that.

    I blame my red hair (ooops … another stereotype).


    Wasn’t Bill Clinton known for patting arms and gripping shoulders too? Was that flirtatious when he did it? – kali

    Actually, in many ways a lot of the attacks on Bill Clinton boiled down to “he likes the ladies a bit too much — doesn’t he know wimins have cuties and you should hate them and only want/need them for teh sex — about which you should feel dirty afterward?”. So yes it was flirtatious — and yes, there was a double standard involved — but not because Bill Clinton wasn’t criticized for it — he was, but because of the tone of the criticism that was very much along the lines of “real men don’t actually like women, therefore Bill Clinton’s not a real man”.

    Interestingly, FWIW, some feel that the behaviors prohibited in Leviticus that some view as a prohibition against homosexuality, were actually related to the extreme version of “real men don’t actually like wimins” that you hear so much from the right today: in many ancient cultures, since women were deemed to, well, have cuties, it was deemed superior for men to cultivate an ability to derive sexual pleasure from other men. It was this “cultivated homosexual behavior”, rather than homosexual behavior based on, well, actual homosexuality, that the Hebrews found to be a taboo.

    So really, the anti-sex, “wimins are icky” crowd are the ones violating the word of God, not the pro-homosexual marriage crowd!

  10. elektrodot
    March 5, 2007 at 2:42 pm

    i cant stop laughing at DAS’s use of the word “cuties” to mean “cooties”

  11. elektrodot
    March 5, 2007 at 2:43 pm

    *not in a mean way of course :)

  12. DAS
    March 5, 2007 at 2:51 pm

    i cant stop laughing at DAS’s use of the word “cuties” to mean “cooties” – elektrodot

    I wish I could be that funny on purpose ;)

  13. March 5, 2007 at 3:30 pm

    This is another excellent post, Jill.

  14. March 5, 2007 at 4:19 pm

    Post bookmarked! Thanks.

  15. March 5, 2007 at 4:51 pm

    This is an awesome post. I hope my brain works up something more insightful than that later, but in the meantime, here’s a “wow.”

    Heraclitus/Jeff – I just hat tipped you yesterday (didn’t ping, sorry, technorati’s being obstinant with me) for the CPAC video in the comments at Pandagon, but there you were An Arrogant Tool of the Matriarchy, a name which, btw, cracks me up every time. I guess you weren’t kidding about the international man of mystery thing in yer profile. ;)

  16. Thlayli
    March 5, 2007 at 5:16 pm

    See also: Pelosi, N. (subheading: suits, Armani)

  17. March 5, 2007 at 9:58 pm

    “The whole thing is exhausting” is right.

    if you ever see a woman running for congress wearing jeans, t-shirt, flip-flops, ponytail, and little or no makeup, it’ll be me.

  18. March 5, 2007 at 11:18 pm

    If I see my Congressman (gender-specific for the moment) coming off like Larry the Lounge Lizard or John Travolta’s character in Saturday Night Live, I would find it embarrassing and tiresome.

    I guess understated professional tone works for millions of men and women earning a living but not for some elected officials. I like Dick Cheney’s method of expressing his sexuality: none.

  19. March 6, 2007 at 11:27 am

    I’m sure nobody would even blink if it was a male congressperson talking to a male OR female reporter sans shirt. WTF.

    Also, Bruce, please don’t metion Dick Cheney and sex in the same breath again. ~shudder~ And I’m pretty sure the robot lizards reproduce by cloning anyway.

  20. Laurie
    March 7, 2007 at 12:17 pm

    And you would get my vote almost instantaneously. :) We’d have to talk issues at SOME point, of course.

  21. March 7, 2007 at 11:22 pm

    laurie — i stand corrected. i’ll be the one in jeans, t-shirt, etc, talking about issues.

  22. Gyratory Circus
    March 8, 2007 at 10:21 am

    I blogged about this topic last year, when I was debating on getting LASIK, and I wondered about the effect it would have on me being taken seriously at work (I’m an insurance auditor) if I ditched my glasses.

    Ends up I’m not a candidate for the surgery, but just as an experiment I’ve been leaving my glasses at my desk when I walk around the building, and the change is noticeable: I’m assumed to be a lower position than I actually am by people who don’t know me people talk about “fluffier” subjects, etc.

  23. Jade N.
    March 8, 2007 at 1:41 pm

    Craaazy… I ran into yer site through a roundabout series of external links originating from Mother Jones… just in case you were wondering…
    if you don’t mind my throwing in a couple of cents, I just wanted to say good ranting and I empathize in the biggest way. I’m a commercial producer for a cluster of bigtime, corporately owned radio stations who pride themselves on their equal treatment and their harassment free workplace…

    Women in most(all) professions are expected to be a cut and dry “character”. We don’t get to be complex or paradoxical- after all, that would make us moody, hysterical or flighty. This black/white categorization of women is exactly WHY the morning show girl is expected to giggle along while the morning man does all of the talking. Why weather is usually done by a woman, while the news is usually done by a man. Why the promotions department is stacked with chicks, and of course, why I’m the only female producer (that I’m aware of) for miles and miles and miles around…
    Fortunately for me, I was a tomboy long before I got into this biz- cause a skirt would sure garner some odd looks back here, and at least a few comments. Clients generally feel comfortable around me… and why not? I come in most days wearing ripped jeans and and a band hoodie. It’s intimidating enough for most people seeing someone behind this gigantic mixing board with thousands of buttons… the last thing they want to have to deal with is the image of a Woman’s Woman in a power suit behind the same terrifying board… also the same reasoning behind why I would never be taken seriously in a sales role- the customers would need me in high heels, makeup and “office appropriate” attire if they’re gonna be handing me their hard earned dollars.

    I have to say though, by far MOST of the discrimination comes from the clients we serve, rather than from my boss and co-workers. And sometimes, it’s just too ingrained to change. So we use workarounds like asking a male colleague to forward a proposal that’s already been declined, because you know the client will be on board if the idea is birthed by a man… signing things with your first initial and last name, so that the Old Boy on the other end thinks this award winning spot was produced by James, not Judy…

    After all, men know business. Women answer phones.

    In fact, a woman mans our front desk… though we did just hire our first ever female program director- with whom my first experience was to revise a long-running commercial series because, “our female listeners just don’t ‘get’ the cutesy humor… let’s make things like this a bit more ‘straightforward’ from now on”.

    Sigh… I guess we really are our own worst enemies…

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