Femininity in Politics: How People Focus on Trivial Appearances to Put down Women

In the months leading up to and even following the November presidential election, Kamala Harris has made headlines several times for her “remarkably unremarkable fashion,” her “subdued uniform” and rather simplistic sense of style.

In the months leading up to and even following the November presidential election, Kamala Harris has made headlines several times for her “remarkably unremarkable fashion,” her “subdued uniform” and rather simplistic sense of style. Articles have been published with in depth analyses of her wardrobe choices, speculating about hidden meanings and wondering if “fashion is her secret weapon.” It is not. As one of the few prominent female public figures in American politics, Harris’s appearances have been both praised and criticized excessively, yet few pause to consider whether these speculations are appropriate or even relevant to her political platform.

Whether it be their expressions or their clothes, female politicians consistently face severe backlash for their “feminine” appearance or actions. Mainstream media and even politicians often use appearances (a woman’s hair, makeup, or clothing) to diminish women and keep them out of politics. It’s an easy target—and by focusing on a woman’s appearance, critics distract the public from her policies or ideas. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s (AOC) bright matte red lipstick has been bashed for being too flashy, and when she detailed her skincare routine on her Instagram story early last year, critics far and wide questioned her competence for no reason at all. After appearing in an issue of Vanity Fair, Fox News attacked her in their headlines: “AOC appears in Vanity Fair in outfits worth $14,000 to curse Trump out.” Rather than focusing on any of the ideas she discussed, Fox News attempted to use her clothes against her. It should be noted that those clothes weren’t even her own—she was allowed to use them for the shoot.

Unfortunately, it is often hard for female politicians to act without being criticized for their looks.The unreasonable verbal attacks on these women demonstrate how women are expected to blend into the majority-male political sphere—they are expected to behave and dress more like men in order to succeed politically. Yet when women do attempt to assimilate, as Clinton tried, (by wearing pantsuits and modifying her lingo), they are seen as overly aggressive and pushy. In other words, a feminine approach implies incompetency and inferiority; a masculine approach implies spitefulness.

The public’s continued emphasis on the way a female public figure looks is yet another double standard. In contrast to male politicians, critics are obsessed with female politicians’ fashion and clothing choices rather than her policies, objectifying and undermining them. News outlets and other politicians often use this double standard to their advantage—when a strong woman threatens the status quo, people emphasize the trivial in order to diminish her. Thus, while women are not legally barred from participating in politics, societal expectations and stereotypes often prevent them from occupying positions of power.

Yet what a woman chooses to do with her body is her own choice, is independent of her ability to perform. Her choice of makeup or the brand name of her outfit does not define her potential, but publicly showing interest in “feminine” options does not make her unprofessional or unqualified. The feminine actions and clothing are not inherently inferior to male ones. Harris can continue to smile while acting on her policies; AOC can wear mascara while speaking on the House floor; Clinton can wear her pantsuits while running for president. Though they will always subject to public criticism, these women’s clothing choices should not be dissected and critiqued by mainstream media and fellow politicians. Washington Examiner’s writer Eddie Scarry should not tweet that AOC’s “jacket and coat don’t look like a girl who struggles;” Project Runway Tim Gunn’s reference to Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits—”Why must she dress that way? I think she’s confused about her gender!”—is both blatantly sexist and ignorant.

The lack of female leaders creates a vicious cycle that makes women less likely to pursue a political career. With fewer political role models, fewer girls are inclined to enter into politics. This is why, aside from their policies, it is so important to have Harris as a Vice President-elect, or AOC as the youngest female member of Congress. In shattering these glass ceilings, these women break through the assumptions of how a female politician should act, dress, or speak. Neither attempts to conform to hypermasculine traits expected of them, nor is “being a woman in politics" their sole identifying factor. In choosing not to shine the spotlight on the fact that they are women, Harris and AOC in fact normalize the concept. Unapologetically themselves, they have managed to succeed in spite of the multitude of contradicting expectations, deflecting the criticisms that female politicians are often subjected to.

Their very presence in high-ranking positions serves as an antithesis to the sexism which pervades American culture; their unique insight will hopefully change the attitude towards women joining the old “boy’s club.”

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