The Dawn Chorus

Fresh Australian Feminism

Putting the “Phwoarrr!” in Politics

Posted by Mel Campbell on October 6, 2008

Is it just the overheated economy, or is there something sexxxy in the corridors of power? Apparently the latter, according to “internet blog sites” (as opposed to telephone blog sites or construction blog sites – whatevz, it’s old media’s default way of describing online sources of any sort). Yesterday The Age reported a list of the “World’s Hottest Politicians”, as compiled by lad mag Maxim. Sarah Palin was pipped to the top spot on the women’s list by – oh, the irony! – Italy’s Minister for Equal Opportunity, Mara Carfagna. Ukrainian prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko, with her Princess Leia-esque braids, also scored highly. Barack Obama dominated the men’s list, ‘hotly’ pursued by Russia’s foxy president Dmitry Medvedev and sometime-shirtless prime minister, Vladimir Putin, plus French prez Nicolas Sarkozy, clearly a pocket rocket at 165cm tall (why else would his height even be mentioned?).

If I’m being facetious here it’s only because it seems self-evident to me that ‘hotness’ is utterly irrelevant to a politician’s ability to do his or her job. Yet more and more, politicians of both genders are being assessed on their sex appeal rather than their intellects or policies. Of course Maxim is going to pull this stunt (and that’s what it is, an editorial stunt) in an election year – but what bothers me is that media outlets in a position to be more thoughtful, like The Age, jump on the bandwagon and even consult a psychologist, Grant Brecht, to ask why Kevin Rudd didn’t make the list:

Dr Brecht said tall, well-built, attractive men more often than not had successful careers and became leaders – which then magnified their attractiveness.

“And with women, it’s literally their attractiveness, how well they’re groomed and how well they present (that draws people),” he said.

Is it a problem that Kevin Rudd isn’t ‘hot’?

On the political stage I’m glad he isn’t, because we can judge him on what he says and does, rather than how he makes us feel nice in the pants. ‘Hotness’ doesn’t just reinforce patriarchal notions of men’s and women’s capabilities (as Brecht notes), it doesn’t just judge them on their hairstyles, dress sense, or having once worked as a topless model (as Italy’s Carfagna did), and it doesn’t just demean women who want to be treated with respect by their male colleagues. ‘Hotness’ actually demeans the political process itself.

It is demeaning to all citizens that we should encourage the attitude that it doesn’t especially matter what elected officials do, say or believe, as long as they’re ‘hot’. And the cult of political ‘hotness’ leads to appalling attempts to ‘sex up’ the electoral process, such as ads wooing young voters that feature Jessica Alba naked and gagged in bondage-style duct tape, or Boobs For Barack.

But it’s not just the sexploitation of politics, but the way politicians employ it, that we need to stamp out. Canny politicians choose to exploit their ‘hotness’ deliberately because they actually want to deflect criticism of their policies – look at Putin’s bucolic photo shoots. Others do it because they believe it gives them an electoral edge – look at French presidential candidate Ségolène Royal’s deliberately leaking bikini shots of herself to a gossip magazine. As an electoral strategy, it didn’t work for Royal: she lost to Nicolas Sarkozy, who not only gets to be hot with his clothes on, but also has a hot wife.)

Of course, no discussion of the deplorability of political ‘hotness’ is complete without Sarah Palin. Despite her ‘maverick’ rhetoric, she is utterly in sync with Bush-era Republican policymaking: her inflexible and pitiless moral beliefs, her obsession with oil, and her constant, empty invocation of smalltown America. Yet her much-vaunted ‘hotness’ obscures this, along with her frightening ineptitude. Saturday Night Live‘s Amy Poehler put it best when, as Katie Couric, she posed to Tina Fey’s Palin: “It seems to me that when cornered, you become increasingly adorable.”

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One Response to “Putting the “Phwoarrr!” in Politics”

  1. Yup, fully agree. I wrote about this in an Australian context earlier this year when Natasha (oh how we miss you!) was leaving parliament. Male senators felt compelled to compliment her on ‘bringing sexy back’ to the parliament, Timberlake style. Way to insult a woman. Thanks for all your service to your country… we especially liked the bit where you were good looking and sassy… not that we were listening to anything you said, and really, I didn’t notice if you achieved anything.

    It made my blood boil.

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