Pretty Wives: the not-so-new political accessory

An article in the Washington Post covers the increasing “sexuality” of the 2008 presidential candidates. The problem is that in almost all cases, the sexuality of the candidate is not the one actually in question– it’s that of his wife.

In this long, hot campaign season, intimations of sexuality are sprouting like wildflowers along the road to the White House. Not that the commingling of sex and politics is anything new, but for what seems to be the first time in memory, voters are being confronted with questions that don’t usually break the surface: Just how sexy is a first lady allowed to be? And what constitutes an appropriate display of affection between candidates and their spouses?
With a nominating field full of older men and younger wives, experts say that a youthful, even sexy wife offers a none-too-subtle message about the vitality of the candidate.
[. . .]
“What’s going on reflects what’s happening in the larger culture, a culture increasingly focused on young, attractive women and blatant sexuality, on display for all to appreciate,” said Elizabeth Sherman, a political sociologist and Democrat who is married to former Republican Rep. Mickey Edwards of Oklahoma. “The candidate’s wife is a strategic asset. How are you going to deploy that asset?”

You know, it’s bad enough that the media is constantly judging the wives of candidates at all (and let’s face it: Michelle Obama, Jeri Kehn Thompson and Judith Nathan Giuliani are getting far more attention these days than Bill Clinton is, and whatever attention he gets is undoubtedly due to the fact that he used to be president). These women are scrutinized for how they dress, if they’re too supportive or not supportive enough, if they follow the candidate around like a puppy or are “disengaged,” how their views match with the candidate, whether they’re nice enough, pretty enough, maternal enough, smart enough, etc. But now we’re officially referring to them as “assets” that need to be deployed? On the bright side, I guess that it’s at least more honest.

Yet again, this seems to be a case of “sex sells” meaning “women’s sexuality sells”– or even more accurately, “women’s willingness to be gazed upon passively as a sexual object sells.” The idea that a woman’s supposed sexuality (her appearance) is a direct reflection of her husband’s sexuality is really just another way of saying that she belongs to him, that she is an accessory. In some cases, I do think that this perception is being carefully created by the candidate’s team of strategists. In others, I’m not so sure. The question here is not necessarily how the candidates actually view their wives– it’s about how the media and the public perceive the candidates as viewing their wives, and what kinds of views, behavior and “uses” of these women are deemed acceptable.
There are also clearly different sets of standards for men and women when it comes to being viewed as “sexy,” and I think that this is particularly emphasized in the political arena. Firstly, female candidates are expected to not be viewed as sexual in any way, thus the over-the-top media coverage of Hillary Clinton when she sported a slightly low-neck top. Males, on the other hand, are also not expected to dress “provocatively”– but they do regularly get away with being perceived as sexy.
The most obvious and topical example would be that of Sen. Obama and his burgeoning role as a sex symbol. Of course, we can’t forget the question of race. The view of Obama as “sexy” can easily, and rightfully, be considered as typical objectification of black male bodies as mere sexual objects. This is definitely a problem, and I don’t want to diminish it. But I do want to point out that despite this issue, Obama is still being taken seriously. Bill Clinton was also viewed as a sex symbol by a decent portion of the population, without needing to show off his body, or even have a particularly “good” body. And until the Lewinsky issue arose, he was not taken any less seriously for it, either.
Simply, men are allowed to be sexy through virtue of charisma. Personality is often enough. When that fails, get a pretty wife. Women don’t get the option; they have to go with heels, makeup and cleavage or nothing at all. When a male politician lacks obvious sex appeal (Dubya), it’s not a big deal, or even discussed. When a woman lacks obvious sex appeal (Sen. Clinton), everyone’s going to talk about it.
Am I wrong in seeing this as a situation where the mean reap all of the benefits, and the women can’t win either way?

Join the Conversation