Commentator Caryl Rivers

(WOMENSENEWS)–Not since a pale Richard Nixon locked horns with a tanned John F. Kennedy in the first televised presidential debate in 1960 has make-up been a major subject of political dialogue in the U.S.

But now, 40 years later, journalists, talk show hosts and comedians have been having a field day with the powder and mascara used by Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris. She burst onto the national scene trying to certify Texas Gov. George W. Bush as the winner of the state’s electoral votes, undoubtedly not expecting her cosmetics to get almost as much ink as Florida’s dimpled and undimpled chads.

Harris–whether you see her as a heroine or a diehard partisan–has become the inheritor of a growing trend in American politics. The men can look like unmade beds and that fact goes unmentioned, while the bodies, hair and makeup of women receive intense scrutiny. The philosopher Susan Sontag refers to it as “the double standard of aging.”

The scrutiny of Harris has been unrelenting, and largely unflattering. A profile in The Washington Post noted that Harris’ lipstick was of “the creamy sort that smears all over a coffee cup and leaves smudges on shirt collars,” that she “applied her makeup with a trowel” and compared the texture of her skin to that of a plastered wall.

Men’s Appearance Unremarkable, Women’s to Be Remarked Upon

A Democratic operative labeled her Cruela deVil, the villainess of “102 Dalmatians,” and the term got repeated everywhere. The Boston Globe said maybe she was planning to unwind at a drag bar, because of all her makeup, and the Boston Herald called her a painted lady. Jay Leno called the election “tighter than Katherine Harris’ face.”

The reaction to Harris underlines an unspoken fact of media life: Men’s appearance is almost always unremarkable and unremarked upon, while women’s is nearly always to be remarked upon, often to the exclusion of other qualities.

There has been almost no media comment, for example, on the physiognomy of the spokesmen for the two campaigns, James Baker and Warren Christopher, men of a certain age who indeed look their ages. The physique of Republican Vice Presidential nominee Dick Cheney only became the subject of news articles when a mild heart attack led to question of his weight gain. Had that not happened, his girth would have been most un-newsworthy.

This double standard is almost an exact replay of one of the biggest political stories of the past decade: the impeachment saga. Once again, there were major female players and major male actors, but the only ones whose faces and bodies were routinely scrutinized were the women’s: Monica Lewinsky, Linda Tripp, Paula Jones and Hillary Clinton. Three out of four of these women actually felt compelled to alter their faces or bodies after the searing light of the media spotlight focused on them.

Paula Jones, who accused President Clinton of sexual harassment, got a nose job. Monica Lewinsky, after endless media stories about her weight, joined a commercial weight-loss program and became its spokesperson for a time. Linda Tripp, who “ratted” on Lewinsky, endured constant comments on her weight, hair and dress–to the point that she reportedly got a makeover, including liposuction, to project a better image.

Women Judged by Only One Standard–The Looks of a Girl

Compare Linda Tripp with another major figure, Special Prosecutor Ken Starr. Like Tripp, he was middle-aged, very average in appearance and hardly a snazzy dresser. Neither of these two people would have stood out in a crowd of bureaucrats on Washington’s F Street. But there was almost no comment at all about Starr’s personal appearance, weight, hairstyle and so on, while Linda Tripp was a moving target.

As for Hillary Clinton, her hairdos, hips, legs, hair color and the like have been subjects of endless comment.

As Sontag points out, there are two standards of appearance by which men are judged–the boy and the man. The boy has a slim waist, smooth skin and thick hair. The man can be considered handsome with a thickening waist, wrinkles and a hairline that’s barely there. Sean Connery, in his sixties, was dubbed the sexiest man alive by People magazine.

For women there’s only one standard: the girl. Whether she’s nineteen or 49, a woman is judged by the girl standard. The media is very attentive to this unwritten law. In films, aging male stars play romantic leads with leading ladies 30 years younger.

And observe most news anchor pairs around the country: They look like some guy and his second wife. Observe the talking heads on cable: These look like grandfathers and their granddaughters chatting. Why are so many female commentators young and blonde, while almost no male pundits look like boys?

The double standard of aging has real consequences. Its main effect is to silence women. How many men would put themselves forward in the public arena knowing that the texture of their skin and their girth would be constantly examined? Women who step forward must pay the price of critical scrutiny, while men are nearly always exempt.

The Double Standard Strikes When Women Are Old Enough to Exert Power

The double standard strikes women at the exact point in their lives when they can begin to exert real power, at middle age and beyond. Aside from the occasional supermodel or actress, women in their twenties rarely have much power, just as most young men do not. But as men age, they inherit the cloak of invisibility, or at least acceptability. They can graduate from boy to man with some measure of grace.

But women are only allowed to go from girl to trying-to-stay-a-girl. A columnist in the Boston Herald wrote of Harris, “There seemed to be something humiliating, sad, desperate and embarrassing about Harris yesterday, a woman of a certain age trying too hard to hang on.” Katherine Harris is 43, not exactly a crone.

Women are mocked in the media for aging; they are not acceptable unless they have been face-lifted or lipo-suctioned. This is a powerful mechanism for keeping women unseen and unheard at the very time they might exert power. Some societies require women to be covered head to toe to appear in public. We have our own version of the chador: an unwritten rule dictating that if you are a woman, you had better not appear to age.

Caryl Rivers is a professor of journalism at Boston University.