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Archive for June, 2009

Another fabulous guest poster, just in time for election day! Aoife B of Sweet Oblivion asks why an election has become a beauty contest – for female candidates only.

“I don’t think I’ll vote,” he announced loudly. “But if I do, I’ll vote for her, ‘cos she’s the best looking.” Sitting on a bus in Kildare one afternoon last week, I found myself listening to a group of men of varying ages chatting about the local elections. Talk had turned to who the best looking female candidates were and as I eavesdropped from a few seats away I heard one man say the above about Fine Gael candidate Emma Kiernan.
Kiernan, a young woman in her twenties, had recently found herself in the national news thanks to a photograph on Facebook of her messing about with friends ending up in the hands of the press.
As the bus trundled through Naas and into Newbridge, the faces of smiling – and in some cases, grimacing – election candidates whipped past us on eye-level posters.
With just over a week to go to the elections, it was only natural to assume that conversations around the country would be occupied by the fate of local candidates. But to hear that people were voting – if they voted at all – for female candidates based solely on their looks felt so depressingly unsurprising to me that it made me wonder if I was one of the only people to be bothered by this.
One of my first thoughts this year on looking at the local election posters in my area was: ‘There are loads of women!’ For the first time it really felt like there was a high representation of women running as candidates, and it felt great that so many of them were young women like myself. But I soon had the sinking feeling that it wouldn’t be long before the attractiveness of these women’s features was discussed, rather than the attractiveness of their policies.
Type in ‘best looking’ into Google and what is the first suggested option to come up? ‘best looking female politicians’. The second? ‘Best looking politicians’. The third? ‘Best looking women’. It’s certainly not just Kildare commuters who are concerned about how attractive their local politicians are. And to me, it’s just another way to show that women are too often judged on their outside appearance, on how good-looking or sexy they are, before their opinions, policies or anything else are considered. It happens in so many other areas, why should it not happen with politics too?
Part of my struggle with this is that I recognise that as human beings it is natural for us to be attracted to people and to size up potential mates. Personally, I wouldn’t expect people to look at someone and never, however momentarily, decide if they find them attractive or not. But when their attractiveness takes precedence over whatever else they stand for, and when it becomes about how ‘foxy’ a candidate is, and not how suitable for the job they are that gets most attention, then I feel distinctly uncomfortable. Particularly when it’s made out to be a perfectly natural question.
Boylesports, by the way, are the ones responsible for this ‘foxy’ idea – they conducted a poll into who the ‘foxiest’ candidates are in the current elections. But the most revealing thing wasn’t who they picked – it was the fact that 43% of respondents said they believe a candidate’s appearance would influence their voting decision; meanwhile, more than a third said they would vote for someone solely based on how they looked.
Is this what modern politics is about? Or is it all just fluffy propaganda created to ‘sex up’ the elections? While I don’t believe that the majority of people, male or female, would enter the polling booth determined to only vote for the best looking candidates, I do think that with the influx of female candidates this year there’s been far more of an emphasis on their looks than in previous years.
Some of the factors contributing to that of course have to include that the great majority of these women are young, fresh-faced and would be considered conventionally attractive.
Then perhaps for some there’s the ‘novelty’ factor – women are woefully underrepresented in Irish politics, with only 13% of Dáil members being female, and this new generation of young women is bound to be of interest to voters and journalists.
But at the end of the day, does all this talk about how ‘foxy’ a female candidate is translate into votes? Is there the chance that those who think these young women are attractive also think that they would be incapable of making serious political decisions? Is it the age-old question of whether people see female candidates as either good looking or intelligent – and does this have anything to do with the lack of women in Irish politics?
According to a recent article in the Irish Examiner: [http://examiner.ie/text/ireland/snmhkfcwoj/]“Studies by the Northwestern University based on the 2006 US congressional elections, showed that [a] woman’s chance of getting voted in depended on the perception of their competence combined with their attractiveness. This compares with male candidates where perception of competence is the main factor with attractiveness a significantly lesser consideration.”
If this study is to be believed, then female candidates do have to straddle the line between being perceived as attractive and intelligent.
We may be living in an age when women in Ireland have more freedom and rights than we have ever had, but there is a distinct gender imbalance in the Government that runs our country.
My own hope would be that following the local elections and into the next general election, because of the higher rate of female candidates women will become far more of a presence in Irish politics. And as more women enter the political game, perhaps we will have a more diverse representation of women holding political power.
But the emphasis needs to be taken off what these women look like and put onto what good they can do for us and our country. Let’s do the opposite to what the commuter I overheard in Kildare did, and take them at more than just face value.

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In need of cheering up now you’re back at work after the bank holiday? Look no further than this indescribably funny “literal” version of Bonnie Tyler’s Total Eclipse of the Heart…

I’d prefer it if it didn’t use the phrase “spazzing out”, but in general it’s totally hilarious…

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Remember we said we were going to have some exciting guest posters? Well, meet the first one! Medbh of the excellent Dante and the Lobster is not impressed by Elizabeth ‘Whiny’ Wurztel’s lament for her supposedly lost looks…

Amy Benfer’s post over at Broadsheet brought my attention to Elizabeth Wurtzel’s article in the latest issue of Elle. WurtzelElizabethSady and Amanda had a conversation about it at Tiger Beatdown [Editor's note: I am in love with Tiger Beatdown. It's my new favourite feminist lady site and you should all read it]. I figured I’d offer my perspective and share it with the lovely ladies here at The Anti Room who had asked me for a post earlier and until now I had nothing topical.

I have to admit that I don’t know much about Wurtzel’s work directly, not having read her books. When she hit her zenith in the media as the darling drama queen, I was busting my ass in university and waiting tables full time. If I remember correctly, I was married the year Prozac Nation was released. The crux of Wurtzel’s essay is that she used to be beautiful, but now that she’s 41, she’s lost her looks and she worries how she will locate her identity when men no lose interest. Oh, and yet she’s still really hot for her age and now she has curves, which in popular parlance means that she has T&A but is otherwise thin. Wurtzel’s summary of her romantic relationships casts a grim trajectory of browbeating and abusive behaviour:

“The men have piled up in my past, have fallen trenchantly through my life, like an avalanche that doesn’t mean to kill but is going to bury me alive just the same. There’s really no point, this late in the day, in picking through all the boys in order—alphabetical, chronological, epistemological—but looking back, I have been in far too many scenes that could have happened in a John Cassavetes movie or an Edward Albee play, if only they rose to that literary level. I attract (and seek) bottle throwing, foot stomping, door slamming, pot clanging, hair pulling, and, above all, a lot of loud screaming and walking out in a huff—usually leaving me crying, wondering what just happened, or, more often, too astonished to cry.”

In short, it’s a narrative where she’s inevitably in peril by random dudes. If this is what beauty gets you then why does she consider herself gifted, blessed or on the guest list for the winners of the genetic crapshoot? Wurtzel wants it both ways in her Janus-faced confessional. She wants to say that beauty was an impediment to her emotional maturity but now it’s gone:

“Now that I am a woman whom some man might actually like to be with, might actually not want to punch in the face—or, at least, now that I don’t like guys who want to do that to me—I am sadly 41. I am past my perfect years.”

How much more clearly could you internalize the social mandate that women’s expiration date arrives sometime shortly after 30? After that, you cease to exist. Pardon me, rational folks know that this is not at all the case. Then she turns around and declares that she’s in her even more perfect years:

“I am much sexier now than I used to be—I suddenly have this voluptuous body where I used to just be skinny and lithe. Really oddly, a couple of years ago I got serious breasts, to the point where people think I’ve had them surgically enhanced, which I certainly have not. Still, I think, the honest truth is that I’m just not as pretty as I used to be.”

Oh, so there’s a second breast growth-spurt at 40? That’s news to me. Seriously how shallow and self-absorbed does she sound? Make up your mind how you feel already. It’s as though she’s still trying to see herself as 25.

The reason Wurtzel’s piece struck a note is that she’s only one year older than me and my understanding of beauty bears no resemblance to the former limelighter’s.

Mr. M said to me not long ago when I was moaning about turning 40 that when we met, I was incredibly beautiful, and now, I’m just beautiful. Sure, he’s sweet to butter me up. No, I wasn’t exactly thrilled to be 40 yet there it is: you cope and move on. It strikes me that there was no clear cognizance on my part when I was younger about being pretty, only the quick recognition that men wanted to pursue me. Now I look at pictures of myself and think why didn’t I regard myself as really pretty? In my youth, I carried flawless skin; thick, indestructible hair; chocolate doe eyes; and except for a brief period, I’ve always been slim. Yes, I have been privileged in the looks department. Men oftentimes let their gaze settle long on my appearance and I saw their wheels turning.

I was 14 when I started to pick up on the fact that men wanted my attention. I’m not talking boys my age, I mean men. Four years earlier walking with a friend, a dude called us to his car for directions and was rigorously wanking it as Michelle told him what road to take. I laughed uproariously and pointed her head down so she could catch the crotch gymnastics. We were taken to the police station to look at mug shots but since there were no peen pics in there the exercise in public safety was pointless. So I was not entirely naïve to inappropriate sexuality and dudes who would mess around with little girls. Then within one month at 14, when I was babysitting for two different married couples, the husbands each cornered, kissed and propositioned me. No shit. One did it in the car on the ride to my house and the other dude in his house with his wife upstairs checking on the kids. So I stopped babysitting and worked my first job (still 14) in a restaurant. A married dude endlessly pestered me to go out with him. Two co-worker dudes in their twenties asked and I did go out once with each. Men’s’ attention set this pattern up so that it seemed natural for me to value it. Their scrutiny and subsequent approval served as a confirmation of my own worth.

My relationships with men have not had the pronounced abuse and trauma that Ms. Wurtzel experienced. Only one boyfriend was full of static and drama. Maybe because I’ve made a point of choosing men who I thought had something to teach me and plus my taste has never run towards the pantomime macho masculinity that gets touted as the ideal. Yet the danger for young hetero women at large is that everything in culture contrives to tell them that it’s beyond aspirational; there is nothing else for women but to anticipate and acquiesce to male consideration.

Just like far too many women, I was enculturated in patriarchy to aspire to be desirable and to mistakenly believe that it was I who had the power over seduction. People frequently cite this ridiculous gender myth, intoning that beautiful women have all the power in the world because they make men weak at the knees. It took me years to understand that it’s more accurate to say that beautiful women, while they do have privilege, they really possess a unique opaque state of invisibility. You fully register in the male gaze but you’re also rendered wraithlike. Perception halts for one reason or another at the corporeal self. Beauty compartmentalizes you as arm candy, trophy, target, a fuck toy with no intellectual acumen. The reason why I fell so hard and so quickly for Mr. M all those years ago, was that for the first time in my life, I felt as though a man finally saw me.

There are various forms of privilege; the automatic advantages people receive which are not merit-based: race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, class and yes, also the privilege that accompanies beauty. The point about having been born with privilege is that you consciously try to not simply coast along in ignorance and that you set your moral compass to counteract the unearned benefits you enjoy, so that you’re not shitting on other people or walking around like you deserve special treatment or are better than anyone else. Recognize that privilege is an ethical trap leading to all kinds of douchebaggery. Any degree of calculation on your appearance to get ahead is a huge fucking mistake, not simply because it’s shallow and lazy to take that route, but really, you ultimately lose your identity to the beauty trap. And what’s at the end of the line there resembles Marlene Dietrich sticking needles in her head in a make-shift facelift. The more power you invest and inflate your beauty with, the more likely you’ll be a bottomed-out parody. So get over yourself, Ms. Wurtzel. Reading a beautiful woman moan about losing her beauty compares with the multitude of white dudes online who pine for the good old days when they were unquestionably in charge and everyone else knew their place. It’s insufferable.

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