Cultural Trends/Popular Culture

Male Bodies Now Treated as Political Objects Too

Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Men's bodies are making political news these days; Chris Christie's girth, Scott Brown's nudity. Caryl Rivers says that's changing the body politic and giving guys a taste of what women have long endured.

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Double Standard of Aging

In our culture, women's bodies are commodified far more than men's. Susan Sontag pointed this out in writing about the "double standard of aging." Men, she observed, have two standards of attractiveness. There's the Boy, with a slim waist and full head of hair, and the Man, who can show signs of age and still be considered handsome and sexy.

Sean Connery, in his 60s, was People Magazine's "sexiest man alive." For women there is only one standard of beauty, the Girl. The leading-lady careers of most Hollywood actresses end at 40, and after that it's playing Moms, DA's and finally, "Driving Miss Daisy." On men, wrinkles and gray hair can be considered appealing, but not on women.

Hillary Clinton is a case in point. Her hips, her ankles, her pantsuits and even her cleavage were an ongoing part of the political discussion during her presidential run. When she appeared on the Senate floor displaying a very modest décolletage, you'd have thought she had appeared in the chamber in a bustier and spike heels, so immediate and huge was the reaction.

According to Media Matters for America, on one day, MSNBC gave 23 minutes and 42 seconds to segments discussing Clinton's "cleavage." CNN devoted three minutes and 54 seconds to the story.

CNBC's John Harwood thought it was all part of some master plan. "When you look at the calculation that goes into everything that Hillary Clinton does, for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress is like Barry Bonds saying he thought he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil," he said on Meet the Press.

Conservative Underside

Conservative women seem to get a bit more latitude in the glam department, but there's an underside to that as well.

As Newsweek writer Julia Baird noted, while the media seem to applaud conservative women such as Sarah Palin and Michele Bachmann for being sexual objects, it bashes progressive women leaders for their supposed failure to be hotties.

Progressive figures such as Supreme Court justices Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor and, of course, Hillary Clinton, faced countless sexist attacks in their rise to high profile media attention.

But the "smokin' hot" conservatives are subtly put down.

Baird noted, "It's odd to see how some men insist that when women start to grasp power, we should think of them primarily as playthings and provocateurs. Is this the best way to explain their success? They aren't challenging the status quo. They're being wild! They're not trying to lift the ban on offshore drilling. They're being naughty!"

Few political women--liberal or conservative--escape this male gaze. I hear many comments on Nancy Pelosi's youthful-looking face. Have any male pols have had similar enhancements? Who knows? It's never--or at least barely--mentioned.

When Evelyn Murphy ran for governor of Massachusetts, she was photographed jogging, and there were a raft of stories about her thighs. Did anyone ever mention the thighs of Bill Weld, Mike Dukakis or Paul Cellucci?

When a Boston radio host recently asked Scott Brown, "Have you officially responded to Elizabeth Warren's comment about how she didn't take her clothes off?" Brown responded, "Thank God!"

The message was very clear. While Warren is very attractive, she is no longer a "girl" and therefore subject to the double standard of aging. Scott Brown's nude photo probably enhanced his image; he won handily when he first ran for the Senate.

Could a woman who had posed naked for a national magazine in her youth ever get elected to the senate? Would she even try? Women are aware of the ridicule they will face if they run for public office without supermodel perfection.

In the past, men never had to worry. Is the coverage of Christie's girth a step forward towards equality? Or does it just put men in an uncomfortable place where women have always been?

Whatever the answer, the "body politic" is getting reshaped.


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Boston University professor Caryl Rivers is the co-author, with Dr. Rosalind Barnett, senior scientist at the Women's Studies Research Center at Brandeis, of "The Truth About Girls and Boys: Challenging Toxic Stereotypes About Our Children."

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