Pride and Prejudice and Lipstick: How the Stigmas of Past Political Women Have Set the Stage for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

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Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a Democratic U.S. Representative candidate from New York, speaks during an event at the First Unitarian Church of Los Angeles in Los Angeles, California, U.S., on Friday, Aug. 3, 2018. Ocasio-Cortez campaigned on abolishing ICE en route to her stunning upset primary victory in a New York City district against a top House Democrat. Photographer: Dania Maxwell/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has become widely known in the last two weeks for three things: her victory in the New York congressional primary over ten-term veteran Joe Crowley, her doing so without any help from the mainstream media, and the fact that her signature red lipstick is currently sold out at Sephora. Provided her expected win this coming November, Ocasio-Cortez will be the youngest woman ever to be elected to Congress. She has no prior experience holding political office. She describes herself as a democratic socialist, the complete opposite of our currently dominant representation as a nation. And she’s from the Bronx.

Backlash surrounding Ocasio-Cortez and her platform has been minimal, probably due to her lack of presence in larger media outlets, which keeps her safely tucked away from the slander of the Right. But Ocasio-Cortez has clearly taken notes from those women who preceded her in political roles, with the help of the mainstream media that she has mostly avoided. Her rookie status on the political scene can only help her, as we saw Hillary Clinton recently slaughtered by attention to her past. Her femininity has a similar benefit, as she garners the respect that was paid to former politically surrounded women like Jackie Kennedy. Her resilience commands accolade, like that of the slandered former governor and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin. All of these qualities fall under the stigma of what Joseph Roach calls the “it” factor—the only stigma necessary to being a successful woman in office.

Pride and Prejudice and Lipstick: How the Stigmas of Past Political Women Have Set the Stage for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

Deconstructing the “It” Factor

In his essay, “It,” Joseph Roach examines the multiple dialectical qualities of the “it” factor, particularly pertaining to performance and the theatre world. He discusses the aesthetic of “it,” which vibrates with energy that is produced by the tension between opposites (like experience and innocence, which are brought together by novelty and inevitability; and strength and vulnerability, which are brought together by projection and introspection). “[The ‘it’ person’s] eyes must be knowing as well as wide,” Roach writes. “Their continuing wonder at the world must be seen to have survived the precocity of their unexpectedly advanced experience or intuitive apprehension of our secrets. It – in this case the phenomenon of poised contradiction between surprise and foreknowledge – makes us wonder what they are thinking. In fact, It always makes us wonder what they are thinking”

How so many women in politics have come to receive this label opens the door to questioning the portrayals of other political women – the “it” girls of politics, if you will – in film and television media. Audiences so frequently glamourize these women, and in many ways idolize them, be it for the better or for the worse. But when doing so, one must consider whether this is helpful or harmful to our political system.

One of the most stylistically influential women of the last century is portrayed by none other than “it” girl than Katie Holmes in the docudrama miniseries, “The Kennedys: Decline and Fall.” When Jackie meets Jack, she is a confident, stylish girl with a hard-to-get nature and those same damn wide eyes that make a man, or any person, curious of everything about her. Just last year, we saw yet another “it” girl, Natalie Portman, portray the famous first lady in the film Jackie, which sheds a light on Kennedy’s darkest hours after her husband’s assassination. In the book What Would Jackie Do?, Shelly Branch and Sue Callaway provide a blunt and organized guide to behaving with the same poise and conviction that Jackie possessed. It literally interprets her every gesture to create a kind of social survival guide, even at times going too far as to enforce identity change. “One disclaimer: Preserving your identity is key – but not in every situation; know when to fold your hand,” it instructs the reader. “Jackie, not exactly a political activist, quietly switched her party affiliation to Democrat when she married JFK.”

But where Jackie stands as a representation of femininity, class, and personal preservation, Palin stands on the opposite side of the line, even though her intentions of imparting influencing the world are larger scale than Jackie’s ever were. Clinton’s boast even larger implications for societal reform and Ocasio-Cortez has built her platform solely on being a voice of her people—the working class, without whom higher societies could not profit.

Deconstructing Media Mockery

In the 2008 presidential election cycle, America would be thrown a huge curveball, no matter which party the victory went to. The White House would be occupied by a minority – either an African American man, as he leads the country through his promises of “change,” or a military hero and his selected partner in crime, a woman who couldn’t be less prepared for a role as Vice President. The portrayal of Palin by Julianne Moore in Game Change as the anti-protagonist is an exhibition of the psychological composition of the political figure from Alaska who became a national caricature. We see the politician, the activist, the mother, the wife, the love-craving and power-hungry woman. The general rule of the feminist genre of cinema is illustrated by Palin’s quest for power and respect. The film gives us reason to pity her at times, and understand her frustrations with the system that she is rolled into. Still, she is not very likable beyond the first fifteen minutes of the film. It is also not her character’s inner narrative that we are hearing—it is the perspective of a man, to whom she is superior.

Pop culture has found a home through the stylish ridicule famed by the monster Saturday Night Live. Because it is a live broadcast, the topics are just as updated as the news, which informs the audience of not only real occurrences in culture, but also a popular opinion, through the bias that the show presents in its political sketches. Tina Fey’s stab at the Palin personality throws darts at her catchphrases, her inability to stay on topic, her religious infatuations, her often offensive sentence structure (“from a very young age, my two greatest loves were always Jews and Cuban food”), her obsession with her home in Alaska, and her tendency to crack under pressure. The SNL portrayals make Game Change look like it is doing the politician a favor in many ways. The brutal mockery is used as an intimidating force on Palin in Game Change, but she seems to be equally inspired by it. Her goal in the film seems to be less about earning her position through her smarts, and more so through her “adorableness,” which Fey captures exquisitely through her big, “it” girl eyes.

No matter how irrevocably unproductive Palin’s career has been to date, we have no choice but to consider her a progressive if we separate her iconic-ness from her work, because at the end of the day, the media’s job is to scrutinize public personalities, which is exactly how they have contributed to the public’s corrupt image of Palin—by sticking her personality under the microscope until she was destined to fail. It is her opinion on the mockery that has been made of her that is what really stands strong. “You know, having every word, every action, scrutinized and in some cases, mocked… I can handle it. You know, I kind of have asked for it,” she boasts confidently in the Pilot episode of the TLC series Sarah Palin’s Alaska. Palin may have lost her election, her following, and her national respect, but if there is one thing she can’t lose, it is her conviction and who she is. Her personality may not be a stellar model, but her self-assuredness might just be.

Deconstructing a “Feminine” Campaign

Clinton and Palin may be stark political opposites in their stances on just about everything domestic, foreign, social and economic in our political system. However, Clinton may have taken notes from Palin in the do’s and don’t’s of media scrutiny through both of her campaigns. In her book Notes from the Cracked Ceiling, Anne Kornblut analyzes their roles in the 2012 election: “It was no small thing that Palin was chosen exclusively by men, in an effort to win women, her strategy devised by men who had never run a woman for a high-level office before. Nor was it a minor factor that Clinton had spent so much time thinking about gender – overthinking it, arguably – and concluded that she had to run with a masculine toughness.” Hillary took to a more “strong” and “masculine” persona in the 2008 election in an effort to contrast Sarah’s “Caribou Barbie”-ness, which was so highly ridiculed by the media, including other well-known and highly respected women in other male-dominant fields (like Katie Couric and Rachael Maddow).

Because of traditional gender roles, women are more likely to be reduced to stigmas than their male counterparts in any field, but particularly in political spheres. In the article “Foxy Ladies” by Liza Mundy, the writer details her shock at how the Fox News team painted her face in the thick, bright colors that she associated with her childhood in the south, where it was customary for conservative women of the area to always look beautiful in palates such as the blues that were caked onto Mundy’s face before her segment. An argument can be made that conservative women are typically less squeamish than their liberal counterparts about embracing what the sociologist Catherine Hakim calls “erotic capital,” otherwise known as using one’s looks to get ahead, Mundy hypothesizes after talking to several anchors and makeup artists from the network. “The Republican Party welcomes looks in a woman—Michele Bachmann, Palin, Nikki Haley—and so does Fox.” In Game Change, we see Palin lose her mind over her expensive wardrobe and her distaste for the way they make her wear her hair. Style was embraced by Jackie Kennedy and is used as a statement in Ocasio-Cortez’s platform. In an interview with Elle, she discusses her feminine style as an asset: “I derive power from my femininity. And any attempt to make femininity trivial or unimportant is an attempt to take away my power. So I’m going to wear the red lipstick. Other people’s attempt to say, ‘Oh, talking about lipstick is unimportant,’ [they are] talking about feminine expression being unimportant,” she says. “That expressing yourself as a woman is unimportant. Don’t ever believe that. The only way that we’re going to move forward is by running as our authentic selves.”

The Last Word

In all of this information, we can draw several conclusions about America’s impression of women in politics today. We see which outlets have drawn women in a positive light, and the ways in which they have done so. Books like What Would Jackie Do… are literal evidence of a political woman’s ability to leave behind a legacy and inspire a movement, which is hardly a negative thing, even if it does somehow imply that only a particular kind of woman can encourage the “it” factor. Clinton’s masculine air and aversion to her sexuality is a tactic that has worked wonders for the successes she has achieved and is heightened in her portrayals to both her benefit and her detriment. Game Change and “The Kennedy’s” both do an excellent job of painting women who strive to be role models and maintain their graces, despite being tried by the men who suffocate them into boxes. And then, there are the downsides of these films and media – the fact that these women are successfully silenced into inferior roles, as actors’ interpretations perpetuate stereotypes, playing up these women’s lesser qualities, which is only forwarding the problem.

So where does this leave Ocasio-Cortez, now that she is of significant media following? Ocasio-Cortez is in no position yet to be portrayed or satirized, but since her victory two weeks ago, has appeared on Colbert, and been the subject of features in the New York Times and several smaller millennial news sources. She, also unlike the previously mentioned political women in this particular article, is also a woman of color—an identity which inspires so much of her platform, and is much more relevant to her poll numbers than whether or not she allows gender stigmas to define her candidacy. The first woman of color to ever run in NY-14, a district that is 70% comprised of people of color, Ocasio-Cortez historically is also the first NY-14 candidate to ever run without lobbyist money. She may be the voice of her people, but she prides herself on not trying to be Wonder Woman. Her accomplishments are a tale of community, and she knows that her leadership will be based upon the many, and will not be single-handed. Her movement is for the “we,” and she does not plan to save the future of the millennials by herself, which leaves little room for scrutiny.

 

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