Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Women, Media-Savvy and Otherwise

“She is just an embarrassment now. She won’t be given any future responsibilities,” intoned CSU representative Markus Ferber ominously. He was speaking of the unforgivable crime of fellow CSU member Gabriele Pauli: posing in suggestive photos. The images appeared in this month’s issue of Park Avenue, a German glossy that fancies itself a mix of high style and social engagement—when that engagement comes in pretty packages like Ms. Pauli, who appears in one shot with leather gloves, and in another with a face-paint eye mask. As Der Tagesspiegel reported today, many members of the Christian Socialist Union, Germany’s prominent conservative party, are now calling for her expulsion.

It gets worse. Not only did Ms. Pauli appear in these photos, but she won’t apologize. “Do we live in the middle ages?” Tagesspiegel reports her telling the Hamburg magazine Der Stern. She also vows to continue her political engagement even if shut out of the CSU. With such a fresh and defiant attitude, you’d think she actually believed woman deserved to be judged by the same standards as men. You’d think that she objects to her denouncement as a tramp, slut, etc., when a man posing in a similar, stylish spread would simply be seen as trendy or attractive. You’d think that she views a photo shoot as less important than her campaign ideas, that the “personality” piece portraying her as sexy and fun should not occasion calls for her resignation.

You might be right. But Ms. Pauli is clearly wrong. As one reader commented on Der Tagesspiegel's website, “How can a politician be so naïve? There is no private life in politics…I wonder if she got her position [as district administrator] because of her intelligence or because of a [gender] quota.”

Pauli is probably not so naïve after all. This whole affair isn’t truly about her indignant astonishment, but rather woeful miscalculation. She probably knew the photos would gather press, but she underestimated the sort of attention they would garner. Since it is generally ok for male politicians to be attractive (or even ugly!), and since their sexual exploits neither damage their reputations (Clinton and the cigar), even becoming the stuff of legend (JFK and Marilyn) or are ho-hum enough for nationally-syndicated commercials (Dole’s Viagra ad), she figured she could let her hair down and allow a photo to show her as…a pretty (but not chaste!) woman. Boy, was she wrong.

As Katha Pollitt has pointed out with her excellent column in The Nation for some years now, contemporary society wields a double standard like a mallet, ready to whack any woman who attempts to pretend men and women may be equally considered. It appears that her assessment of the American scene works for Germany too.

Pollitt has also attacked many a New York Times headline about the “death of feminism” for being based on anecdotal evidence and thin reporting, and unlike Pauli, her media analysis is spot-on. Sunday brought another article based completely on anecdotal evidence, this time Sarah Rimer’s acquaintance with a circle of adolescent over-achievers at a prep school outside of Boston.

For Girls, it’s Be Yourself, and Be Perfect Too” is not the expose it promises to be, relying mainly on conversations with these hyper-American hard-workers to form a repetitive run-down of their goals and extra-curriculars. Rimer aims to shock us with the workload these girls are taking on, but her promise of gender analysis doesn’t come through. Sure, these girls are working their track-captain butts off—but what does that have to do with being female? Boys at such prep schools are working just as hard, the article itself acknowledges, in its gender-neutral quotes from administrators and parents and multiple reversions to the word “student” rather than “girls.” The piece has nothing to do with gender, outside of the author’s choice to interview only young women. This is really an article about the ever-more-ridiculous ideals of achievement America’s elite communities foist on their high school youth, dressed up in a skirt to make it sexier. Shame on the New York Times. It could have at least used, say, black rubber gloves and an eye mask.

Pollitt's new book, a collection of her columns entitled Virginity or Death! And Other Social and Political Issues of Our Time, is in stores now.

Pauli images courtesy Park Avenue, Pollitt image courtesy http://ffrf.org/day/?day=14&month=10, and student image courtesy New York Times.

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