Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Wardrobe Malfunction

One of the hot button issues of the day is Sarah Palin's $150,000 wardrobe, and whether she has to pay income taxes on it. To my ears, the real question is whether it is a just state of affairs where female politicians have to spend so much more on their personal appearance than their male counterparts. One tactful columnist had the following to say:
Today’s big So What: It cost $150,000 to dress Republican Sarah Palin. It is all about image in politics.

A killer presidential candidate needs killer clothes. Democrat Hillary Clinton wore cheesy polyester pantsuits. If she shelled out a few bucks on something you couldn’t get at Kmart, she might be president...

Women are supposed to look good and smell nice. The reason that Democrat John Edwards was mocked for his $400 haircuts was it was a girlish vanity. The “I Feel Pretty” video aims at his masculinity. The song is sung by a girl.

A double standard? You betcha.

To my mind, the burden being put on Gov. Palin is just an extreme version of the Jespersen dilemma. Jespersen was a female bartender working for Harrah's who was forced, under new grooming regulations, to wear makeup to her job. This imposed an additional hurdle to her entering the workforce: though men also had grooming requirements, they were generally less expensive to maintain than those given to women. In such a case, women are being penalized upon entering the workforce solely for being women: that second X chromosome means that they can be required to shell out more as a threshold requirement before they are allowed to compete for the same job men are going after. Likewise, Gov. Palin, because she's a woman, has to spend a lot more time and resources on her attire and appearance before she can compete as an equal in the political arena.

From a feminist perspective (which wants Gov. Palin to lose, but not because she is hobbled from competing as a woman), there are two angles of attack on this. On the one hand, you could indict the norms of appearance that require so much more out of women than men. Alternatively, one could (perhaps provisionally) accept those norms, and demand offsets so that the costs of their enforcement do not fall on women but on some other party. For example, if Harrah's Casino wants to demand women alter their appearance above and beyond their requirements for men, it could be forced to pay for the difference in value (I imagine if that requirement did exist, the gender-differential would be eliminated quite rapidly).

How it works in cases like this, where nobody is "forcing" Gov. Palin to spend so much on her clothes, but there is a generalized knowledge that if she didn't pay that extra attention, she'd be political toast, is more complicated. But the income tax question gives a hint. Regardless of whether Gov. Palin is correct in asserting that she does not have to pay taxes on her "borrowed" wardrobe is right as a matter of current law, one could argue that creating such an exception, by mitigating the cost of additional clothing (at least on the candidate) would help alleviate some of the burdens our gendered appearance norms currently place on female politicians. It wouldn't eliminate it entirely, as it still would cost more for Parties to run these candidates, but it would at least make a dent. A purist might also feel feminists advocating for such a rule would be capitulating to the legitimacy of the underlying gendered-appearance sentiment, which is what really has to be taken apart for gender equality to be obtained (that was the first approach I outlined). But advocates for this plan might respond that we can't wait for a revolution that might never arrive, and in the meantime provisionally accepting the realities of ingrained sexism, and working to mitigate their impact, is the best that can be hoped for (a Derrick Bell style argument).

All of which goes to show how deeply entrenched patriarchal norms continue to have an impact today, even against the most elite and accomplished female figures.


Unknown said...

Most elite and accomplished female figures?

Waitaminute, we were talking about Sarah Palin!

PG said...

Likewise, Gov. Palin, because she's a woman, has to spend a lot more time and resources on her attire and appearance before she can compete as an equal in the political arena.

I'm skeptical of this claim. I doubt any of the female senators currently serving has spent as much money on her makeup in her entire career as Palin has spent in 2 months, yet the senators have competed as equals in the political arena. I'm well aware that makeup artists are expensive, but campaigning isn't supposed to be like a wedding day, where you are to look as good as you ever will in your life. For one thing, election campaigns last longer than even Hindu weddings, and for another, people aren't obligated to tell candidates how beautiful they look.

The reason so much is spent on Palin's appearance is that she is overtly using her appearance as part of her appeal to voters. It's the same reason Newsweek caught so much hell for letting Americans know that a 44-year-old woman has a few wrinkles.

I never paid much attention to what Sen. Clinton wore, so I don't know if the "polyester pantsuit" claim is accurate. I would think that any woman in political life could be expected to dress as women in professional life do, except perhaps with a little more color permitted and of course a daily flag pin. Dressing like a female attorney at a NY law firm should be a reasonable standard: suits every day (pantsuits acceptable but skirt suits preferred), 10 inconspicuous suits are plenty because this is not a fashion show, natural fibers preferred (polyester disfavored), no open-toed shoes in court, no splashy accessories, shells OK if jacket is kept on...

I assure you that this standard can be met without spending $100K at Saks, Nieman et al. $10K should do it, even if you go to Bloomingdale's and get everything tailored. No one will talk about how great you look, but also no one will talk about how bad you look, because your looks will fade into the background and what will count is the work you do.

I just wish the McCain campaign treated Palin that way.

The Gaucho Politico said...

I agree with PG on this one. Yes there does seem to be some expectation in politics that women be "pretty" or something and this could place an undue burden on them. However i dont think this case here is a winner. As PG said you could outfit Palin adequately for 10k or a similar amount such that the wardrobe becomes a non issue.

It is true that the media tends to write inane and stupid stories about the looks and style choices of candidates but these stories seem to have little impact and are roundly criticized when they add nothing to the story. That palin spent $150,000 to out fit herself for a couple months is not so much about her style of dress as the wastefulness of that figure beyond the perceived requirement of professional dress.

To me i think it comes across not as the unfair societal expectations of a female candidate but a vain profligate female candidate more concerned about looking good than in making good policy. style over substance.

Jack said...

Huh. You totally miss the real hot button issue- which is neither whether or not she needs to pay taxes on the clothes nor whether or not it is a just state of affairs for women to have to spend so much. The real hot button issue is that the campaign spent 150,000 dollars and Palin's wardrobe. The reason so many people are surprised is that women don't actually have to spend that much on clothes to be successful. 150,000 is an order of magnitude larger than what would be reasonable especially given that Palin tries to portray herself as Ms. Six-Pack. The fact that there was nothing like this when Clinton ran shows that the only sexism here is the way the McCain campaign is using Palin.

Anonymous said...


My Republican friends claim that when Clinton was running for president, she actually had a nice wardrobe and particularly very nice jewelry (well, it is the traditional guilt gift from a husband...). But the Clintons after 2000 had their own money from book deals, speaking, etc. They weren't spending money that otherwise would go to, say, running ads in a swing state. Indeed, Clinton could afford to lend her own campaign money.

The best comparison here, financially, is to the Clintons circa 1991, when they first stepped onto the national stage from the governor's mansion of a relatively small state. How did Bill Clinton dress? I'm guessing he was more Brooks Brothers and Banana Republic, at best, than Burberry and Hugo Boss. That's the appropriate way to dress when you don't have much money: like a upper-middle class professional.

However, continuing their newfound discovery of inequality between the sexes, Republicans will keep saying that women have to dress much more nicely than men to be taken seriously. Being conservatives, they will not consider that if that is true, perhaps this is the moment to challenge such inequality.

Nor will it occur to them that in their struggle to find points of comparison to Palin (women who have run for President or VP, a group apparently limited to Shirley Chisholm and Carol Moseley-Braun -- neither of whom counts, for some reason -- Clinton, E. Dole, Ferraro and now Palin), there is itself a huge glaring sign of sexism.