What do Elena Kagan and Sarah Palin have in common? They each offer complementary cautionary tales about the continuing appeal of an ersatz, "Sex in the City" feminism that rewards beauty and punishes plainness with all the subtlety and compassion of a Playboy centerfold. Kagan's appearance and fashion sense are mocked or savaged, especially but not exclusively by pundits on the right, following a familiar script. Hillary Clinton and Janet Napolitano endured similar hazings. Sarah Palin, to say the least, did not.
Palin's fans would counter that, conversely, she has paid a political price for her beauty. Liberal feminists dislike Palin partly because she is "very attractive," feminist psyche expert Bill Bennett declared during the 2008 campaign. He didn't explain how the equally attractive Gloria Steinem became a greatly admired liberal feminist leader, despite feminism's presumed disdain for good-looking women. Nor did he acknowledge the obvious -- that Palin owes her political success, and her lucrative new career as a TV pundit, in no small part to her allure; (she owes her reputation as a lightweight not to her looks but to her breathtaking displays of actual ignorance).
It's worth remembering Palin's path to national prominence, illuminated by Jane Mayer in a 2008 New Yorker report: as a newly elected Alaska Governor, Palin successfully cultivated middle-aged, male members of the Republican elite, like Bill Kristol and Fred Barnes, (who observed that she was "exceptionally pretty") and, in turn, they promoted her selection by the McCain campaign. I doubt they would have responded to her quite so enthusiastically had she been homely and 30 pounds heavier.
Who's judging who on the basis of appearance? Would Elena Kagan's sexuality be a subject of so much speculation if she looked like Sarah Palin, or Kim Cattrall? At The Washington Post, Robin Givhan complains that Kagan, like many other serious, substantive, middle-aged women, doesn't dress like Cattrall, without acknowledging that, given various accidents of nature, she'd look quite foolish if she did. People choose their clothes partly to signal membership in a "particular social tribe," Givhan observes; but if they have any sense of style (as opposed to a mere sense of fashion), they choose their clothes on the basis of their body types. And, some women simply strive to make beauty or the lack of it less relevant to their failures or successes. Men are armored by their unrevealing suits; women are expected to expose themselves, with various degrees of discretion.
Years ago, I watched an array of law students lingering in a hotel lobby, waiting to be interviewed by visiting firms. The men were completely, conventionally covered by their suits; the women seemed half naked by comparison, in fitted jackets, often showing a little cleavage, and above the knee, or shorter, skirts. Maybe they hoped to benefit from these reveals, but I suspect they were subtly disadvantaged by them. The men were free to focus on their interviews; at least some women were likely to be distracted (however, unconsciously) by concern about their looks and the need to sit and display themselves appropriately. How much skin is just enough? Stilettos, kitten heels, or flats? Hollywood or D.C? These are questions men never have to ask. Will they ever cease to matter to women?
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