April 14, 2009

The Fashion Weapon

By: Meghan Keane

Lisa Ann does not approve of Sarah Palin’s sex appeal. Asked about the Alaska governor’s looks in March, she told the New Haven Advocate:

“It’s a distraction from politics. I hope people wouldn’t be swayed either way by sex appeal. People vote for all the wrong reasons anyway, but if we throw sex appeal into the mix we’ll have [a disaster].”

Ms. Ann, best known for her role impersonating the former vice presidential candidate in the adult film Who’s Nailin Paylin, may not agree with Ms. Palin’s politics or style of dress, but that’s not going to stop her from profiting from it.

She says of Nailin Paylin: “We attracted a new audience of fans, maybe people that were not that into porn. It’s one of those things that everybody bought just to say they have it. It might invigorate the economy and the industry a little because, you know, the economy everywhere is very slow.”

Touching, really. A successful porn spoof may not be the highlight of a political career, but it does show the kind of impact—even months after a failed political campaign—that a distinctive female aesthetic can have on the American psyche.

Female sexuality may be seen as a distraction for politicians, but it’s also a powerful tool when used correctly. And as Palin’s campaign demonstrated, women are getting much more adept at using it to their advantage.

The Republican National Committee got into trouble for spending $150,000 on a makeover for the Palin family, but until the expense went public, it was an incredibly successful endeavor. Photogenic and comfortable on television, Palin won over foreign dignitaries—the president of Pakistan declared Palin “gorgeous” during his first meeting with her. After the election, a pair of her shoes that retail for $80 were auctioned on eBay for over $2,000.

But Palin isn’t the only woman in the public eye with sex appeal. And while women in the national spotlight are under a lot more pressure to look good, they also have a lot to gain from getting their look right.

First Lady Michelle Obama was critiqued for politically charged remarks during her husband’s campaign, but she is currently winning the hearts of the American people—not with her impressive credentials, Ivy League degrees, or winning political ideas, but through her wardrobe choices. Hillary Clinton, once maligned for her dowdy clothes, has matured into a well-coifed stateswoman, while Nancy Pelosi has the Botox bills to prove that a well-maintained physique helps get out the vote.

That’s not to say that women can win political campaigns on looks alone. Palin, for instance, failed to pass the preparedness test in her first national campaign for office. But sex appeal is an unavoidable aspect of public life.

Male politicians, from Thomas Jefferson to John F. Kennedy and President Obama, have been trading on it from time immemorial. The theory of “The Halo Effect” says that attractive people are perceived as more competent, and the results of presidential elections over the past 40 years seem to prove it as well. Since Kennedy debated Nixon in the first televised presidential debate, physical attractiveness has become an undeniable factor in the election process.

But as these results show, the attractiveness of a politician often has more to do with packaging than the raw materials. For men, dressing for political success is an easier endeavor. A well cut dark suit and a tie are not hard accessories to master. Seriousness on a woman can be conveyed in many different ways: a high neckline, austere jewelry, a well-cut shirt or a sweater set. And it can also go wrong with a simple misjudgment about color, cut, or style.

But when done right, and paired with competence and political skill, female sexuality has legs in the political sphere. Clinton may not be perceived as a sex kitten by the American populace, but when she wore a v-neck sweater in 2007 that showed a slight amount of cleavage, she got the Washington Post‘s Robin Givhan and much of Washington all hot and bothered about her for a week. Even the elder Margaret Thatcher was considered a sex symbol throughout her tenure as Prime Minister (despite that looking back now it looks like her tailor specialized in upholstery fabrics.) Marc Jacobs dedicated his fall 2004 line to her look, saying that “it’s all about finding Margaret Thatcher sexy.”

Many recognizable female political figures are women past menopause, but Palin celebrated her youth on the campaign trail, tapping into the large voting bloc of families with working mothers.

Her look—feminine and flirty—demonstrates how far female politicians have come since the first woman ran for vice president in 1984. Back then, Geraldine Ferraro dressed in long, loose skirts and refused to touch her running mate, Walter Mondale. She told Newsweek in the lead-up to the 2008 election: “We were the first, so we had to be careful.”

But as America becomes more comfortable with women holding important offices, those candidates have more freedom to be themselves. Palin, in contrast to Ferraro, wore shiny red heels and often hugged John McCain.

Women are still finding their way in the traditionally male realm of politics (they weren’t even allowed to wear pants in Congress until the 1990s). But while public women may get skewered in the press for seemingly innocuous fashion choices more often than men, they also profit more from making good choices. And the more comfortable we get with seeing women in the spotlight, the more that will be true.

-Meghan Keane is a writer living in New York City.