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The Feminist Life: The Shallow Expectations Keeping Women Out of Politics

This month’s Vanity Fair frets over how much problem-solving time a woman president would instead spend on her hair

Normally, I like Vanity Fair a lot. It’s a publication that still boasts a commitment to covering Kennedys (especially my favorite one, Jackie). Plus, I once witnessed someone asking editor-in-chief Graydon Carter why the magazine continued to feature things, such as royalty—American or otherwise—that younger potential readers don’t care about. He seemed confused, surprised, and unrepentant, all qualities I respect very much in a person or magazine.

Chris Christie at a town hall event in New Jersey in 2011. Photo by Bob Jagendorf via Wikimedia Commons

But the buck stopped this month. In a column from the November issue titled “It Is A Beauty Contest,” critic Michael Kinsley, whom I normally also like a lot, issues a farcical public apology to New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie for previously dismissing his “presidential ambitions because of his girth.” Christie, a potential Republican contender for the presidency in 2016, has been making headlines for recently shedding close to 100 pounds through lap-band surgery. Losing the weight, Kinsley argues, has made Christie a paragon of dedication and all other excellent virtues one would hope for in a politician. “If Chris Christie was a symbol of national excess and self-indulgence when he was piling on the pounds, then he should be a symbol of national discipline and self-control now,” he writes.

Satire well done is expected from Vanity Fair, which is why I was so surprised when I came to the column’s culmination. There stood an earnest message that appears to be the one Kinsley wanted to transmit all along: We may grant pardon to a formerly fat politician, but we may never seriously consider a female presidential candidate. “The least attractive man will always have one unfair advantage over the most attractive woman: He’ll need less time for physical preparation each day,” Kinsley writes about the true difference between equally qualified political candidates. He goes on to say that the most vain male politician will likely spend less time on “his hair, his cosmetics, and his clothes than the most indifferent or naturally beautiful woman.” Moreover, he continues, “This is extra time he can spend developing an anti-terrorism policy or catching up on sleep.” Even if Hillary Clinton is elected president, Kinsley estimates she will “need an extra half-hour” to devote to the quotidian business of looking good.

The only thing standing in the way of a Hillary Clinton presidency is her hair, makeup, and clothes, apparently. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Perhaps this is still satire, but the tone feels more straightforward and depressing: No matter what, a woman’s appearance can still hold her back from achieving serious political ambitions. Kinsley writes that “the reasons for that are pretty obvious, and they pre-date democracy by several million years. That doesn’t make them right or wise or inevitable, but it does make them hard to avoid.” He then muses that a very overweight female politician would never even consider running for president, “except maybe in a Melissa McCarthy movie.” A male colleague of mine called it a “very male paragraph.”

Kinsley’s fatalistic stance is not one the United States can afford to take any longer. Last week’s mid-term elections increased the number of women in the U.S. Congress by exactly one. And while the special election of Alma Adams (D-N.C.) to the House of Representatives did move the needle for women in Congress to the watershed number of 100, women still occupy less than 20 percent of total congressional seats. According to the latest Global Gender Gap report from the World Economic Forum, the United States ranked 54th out of 142 countries in terms of women’s political empowerment, based on the proportion of women leaders in top government positions at the time of the study.

As my friend Jill Filipovic writes in Cosmopolitan, “more women in positions of power normalizes female authority and … in the long run, that makes life better for women.” It’s clear that just to keep up with the low bar for women in power around the globe (which hovers around 20 percent according to the Gender Gap report), the United States and many other Western democracies need to step up in terms of female leadership. But that was not Kinsley’s point at all.

Instead, while Kinsley apologizes for dismissing Christie, in one fell swoop he dismisses all female presidential candidates—past, present, and future. How long will womankind wait for his apology?

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