STYLE

Why Can't Women Just Be Women In Politics?

04/10/2011 16:46 | Updated 22 May 2015

Last week, another Photoshopping scandal made headlines. Except it wasn't a celebrity or model being digitally altered; it was a female MP, Rathika Sitsabaiesan, a member of Canadian Parliament.

According to the blog Contrarian, a photo of Sitsabaiesan which revealed some cleavage in a low-neck dress initially served as the MP's official headshot on Parliament's website, but was later replaced by a cleavage-free pic. It is thought that Sitsabaiesan or someone from her team decided to swap the image.

Why, you might ask? I'm certainly curious. Was it inappropriate for Sitsabaiesan to reveal her cleavage in the first place in an official Parliament photograph? We wouldn't blink an eyelid if the photo featured the MP at a cocktail party or formal dinner, but in the context of Parliament's buttoned-up corporate atmosphere, maybe her outfit was badly chosen and the resulting glimpse of cleavage disrespectful. In any case, is erasing the cleavage an anti-feminist statement?

Perhaps this is just the case of an unfortunate photo swap, but I can't help but feel it's tied to bigger issues surrounding the position of women in politics. Ultimately, it was deemed necessary to make Sitsabaiesan appear less womanly, and to me it's yet another example of the continued problem that women in the political sphere face: They're not allowed to be women.

It's not even a question of numbers (although women are vastly underrepresented in politics), but rather representation. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the treatment of Hillary Clinton, who spent much of her bid for the White House vilified by the press and pundits, ultimately derided as a cold, unfeeling shrew. When the now-Secretary of State did eventually break down and cry at an event on the campaign trail, she was disparaged for that, too.

From heartless and inhuman, she suddenly became an even greater danger: over-emotional, potentially unhinged and on the verge of a breakdown. She couldn't win - if she acted like a woman, she was weak. If she acted like a man, she was a b***h. Therein lays the problem women in politics face. (NB: While David Cameron has faced something similar because of his gender, being accused of "laddish" and "bullying" behaviour, women are still far more subject to this kind of treatment than men are).

It's not only about behaviour, but appearance as well. Whether women in the political sphere act feminine or masculine, they will be judged on their wardrobe, hair and general appearance. While nobody cares what Nick Clegg is wearing on his feet, Theresa May's ill-advised penchant for leopard print shoes has spawned a multitude of articles. So perhaps it's no surprise that a recent Northwestern University meta-analysis found that women are still viewed as less qualified for most leadership roles, and also derided for their presumptuous behaviour when they try to adopt the masculine traits necessary for their leadership positions.

Like all women, those in the political sphere are expected to "perform" the labour of femininity, investing time and money on their self-improvement, physical and otherwise. Judith Butler's view of gender as a performative construct, "a 'doing' rather than a 'being,'" is useful for understanding how politicians need to behave and look, and emphasises the importance of displaying typically "gender-appropriate" traits (both emotional and physical).

Female politicians need to be feminine - they are required to be sympathetic and well put-together and compassionate - yet it is also obligatory for them to be aggressive and ambitious and decisive. Not only are they meant to "perform" the labour of women, they are also required to act like men, and that is no easy feat.

However, if, as a woman in the political sphere, you are seen to be too concerned with appearance, or submissive, or overemotional, you've failed. No one has faith in a hysterical, superficial leader. But as a female in politics, you may lose either way because you will be maligned by critics and the media if you don't "perform" your role and take care of yourself; in other words, if you act or look in a way deemed to be too masculine.

As a woman in politics, regardless of your policies and accomplishments, if you look unfeminine, you will be criticised. Similarly, if you happen to be photogenic and attractive, like Sarah Palin, you will be portrayed as sexy and "girlish," and similarly mocked.

Maybe it's that women with power need to be silenced however possible, whether with a taunt, a critique or an airbrush. In my view, there was nothing overtly lewd about the tiny glimpse of cleavage in her Rathika Sitsabaiesan's photo and nothing to erase in the first place. There is no reason to assume that she is less credible or intelligent because she opted to wear a scoop neck dress for an official portrait. Now –for the time being, at least - instead of gaining renown for her policies, she will be known as that girl whose cleavage got Photoshopped.

The American Journal of Political Science found that women are more effective lawmakers than men, both in terms of shaping policy and landing donations. But who cares, really? We're too busy trying to hide their femininity, make them act like men, and then disparage them for failing to be women.

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