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?

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  1. LindsayPW
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 11:27 am | Permalink

    This is why I turned away from getting a degree in journalism. It’s not journalism it’s a petty gossip column anymore. Every time I see an article like this I want to smack the writer in the face. I mean, is there not enough real news out there for them to cover???

  2. werechick
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Actually, I do think their spouses are assets. But only for John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. :)

  3. Laurel
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 11:56 am | Permalink

    “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?”
    Well, DUH–Oh, sorry, you were talking about this political sexiness thing and not Western civilization, right? ;-)

  4. Posted August 7, 2007 at 12:09 pm | Permalink

    Campaigning is a form of marketing. The candidates need to sell themselves.
    The problem with the article is that it overgeneralizes. A candidate that is perceived as wooden or cold needs to use his spouse to soften him up. I can only speak for myself, but the infamous Gore kiss changed the way I saw him.
    Conversely, Guiliani is perceived as too hot headed, and perhaps too passionate. So the last thing he should be doing to market himself is engaging in PDA.
    Like Gore, Hillary Clinton is perceived as too calculated and stiff. She uses Bill to show her softer and natural side.
    There’s no one-size-fits-all approach.
    I disagree with the conclusion of this blog entry – that women have to “go with heels, make-up or cleavage.” While T&A sells products, it doesn’t sell a presidential candidate. Thompson’s wife is perceived as a liability, not an asset. Repressed america wants its first lady to be dowdy.

  5. Posted August 7, 2007 at 12:38 pm | Permalink

    Does anyone remember the kerfuffle over Tereza Heinz and her outspokenness in ’04? This isn’t new… unfortunately it doesn’t seem to be going away anytime soon, either.

  6. Posted August 7, 2007 at 12:41 pm | Permalink

    I personally think all of this sexuality is kind of gross. Why should these candidates be trotting out their wives to make me care about them? It doesn’t cover up the fact that Giuliani is an ass or that Kucinich has to climb K2 to get the bid. Also, I hadn’t thought about that fetishization of Obama, but it makes sense.
    Not to say that I disagree with your assessment because I don’t, I’m going to flip the issue a little bit. The women have decided to become involved members of the campaign. We have had campaigns (the Dean Campaign in 2000, for example) where the wife wasn’t involved. By throwing themselves into the public sphere, does the wife/husband not open them up towards criticism and examination? Their husbands/wife are criticized, why would they be immune from such criticism themselves? While I think that a lot of the criticism leveled at the women is based upon their physical appearance, a bit of it has also been about their history and demeanor, which is just as relevant as the position of First Lady (what are they going to call Clinton if he wins? First Lad?) has become increasingly important in modern years.

  7. Posted August 7, 2007 at 12:47 pm | Permalink

    before I get killed, their physical appearances aren’t relevant. I’ve got to take a vacation from the internet. My mind got ahead of me.

  8. Posted August 7, 2007 at 12:53 pm | Permalink

    We have had campaigns (the Dean Campaign in 2000, for example) where the wife wasn’t involved. By throwing themselves into the public sphere, does the wife/husband not open them up towards criticism and examination? Their husbands/wife are criticized, why would they be immune from such criticism themselves?
    I was actually living in Australia during the Dean campaign, so I know little about the media coverage. Looking at the current campaigns, though, it seems that political wives are seen to be public and open to criticism simply because of who they’re married to, not because they have shown any other form of desire to be involved. I think that both Giuliani and Fred Thompson’s wives have been talked about extensively, even though neither is particularly involved. Judith Giuliani is admittedly becoming more involved, now, but has been the subject of speculation on how the public wold perceive her, since she’s a dirty ex-mistress.
    I also don’t necessarily expect a presidential candidate’s spouse to be immune from criticism. However, spouses, specifically wives, seem to receive FAR more press than any other familial relation. Also, my main problem with the coverage isn’t that coverage exists, it’s the incredibly sexist and condescending tone that it often takes that I find to be really unproductive and even harmful.

  9. Ace
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 2:44 pm | Permalink

    I completely agree with that. Both the women and the men are being sucked up in this pointless commentary about superficialities and things that are unrelated to the position that these people are running for: the presidency of the United States.
    I think that the incessant coverage of Hillary’s non-cleavage and Edwards’s 400 dollar haircut are good examples that are taking away from more substantial stories like the claims made by FDNY firefighters against Giuliani with regards to 9/11, something that should be discussed a little more. Or, more generally, what they are going to do to help America regain its previous status as a world power.

  10. Maggie
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 8:31 pm | Permalink

    I seem to remember Dean’s wife taking a lot of heat for not following him around on a string during his campaign.
    Also, does anyone else agree that the only way to make this election even more fun would be to have Hillary Clinton get a sexy wife?

  11. werechick
    Posted August 7, 2007 at 8:47 pm | Permalink

    Also, does anyone else agree that the only way to make this election even more fun would be to have Hillary Clinton get a sexy wife?
    I’m afraid Bill was the sexiest wife she could find. ;)

  12. bilsemon
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    Does Brownback girl count?

  13. bilsemon
    Posted August 8, 2007 at 12:55 am | Permalink

    Does Brownback girl count?

  14. Posted August 8, 2007 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    But that’s politics – it’s insignificant, it doesn’t matter and it’s misogynistic, but that’s how politics works.
    This is mainly because society’s bought into the Hollywood and social myth version of how a politician is supposed to be and the family he’s supposed to have.
    Unfortunately, I don’t see this changing anytime soon, unless we put more women in political positions. As I see it, it’ll always be a politician pounding his fist at the podium, making a no-shit statement, while his wife stands in the background, with their little children, perfectly dressed in Sunday School clothes, and dutifully claps.
    It doesn’t make it right, but that’s politics for you. And sometimes, the ends do justify the means.

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