Political princesses

For Politico, I wrote about how the portrayal of female political leaders in media, noting that the coverage of mainstream outlets is little different from the preening profiles of fashion magazines. An excerpt:

In 1963, Look magazine published a series of photos of President John F. Kennedy working in the Oval Office as 2-year-old “John-John” played under his desk. The father and son portraits were an instant hit. They heightened the president’s personal appeal without diminishing his political power.

In 2014, Vogue published a photo of U.N. Ambassador Samantha Power in a similar scene, but with a few notable differences. Like Kennedy, Power sits at her desk with her toddler—whom she ignores for her cell phone. She is flanked by two assistants, both of whom disregard Power and the child as they gaze at their own screens. The little boy clings to his blanket and stares into space.

Unlike the warm spontaneity of Kennedy’s photo, the Power photo conveys alienation. Why is her son even there? Who is taking care of him? Why would photographer Annie Leibovitz stage this scene? Power is not humanized by the presence of her child, as Kennedy was, but appears distracted, overwhelmed. She’s either a bad worker (for parenting while working) or a bad mother (for working while parenting), the image tells us.

It is a catch-22 familiar to any working mom, though that was likely not the photo’s objective. The photo—captioned “liberal hawk, human-rights champion, mother of two”—seeks to provide evidence for something Power should have no obligation to prove: that she is a caring mother who works hard at a difficult job. (“The work-life balance is the thing I struggle with most,” she says in the profile. “But everything’s a cost-benefit, right?”)

The “having it all” narrative follows Power from profile to profile. A 2014 New York magazine photo essay shows her spoon-feeding her son and sending handwritten thank-you notes. Like Mayer in Vogue, she talks like a teenager: “This was a really cool event where a number of the U.N. ambassadors came to me”; “Ukraine has been intense.”

The New York photos seem aimed at making Power relatable, but likely had the opposite effect. (It is hard to tell from online feedback, since any working mom watching Power make time for handwritten thank-you notes may have had trouble typing with both middle fingers up.) The problem for Power—for all women in politics—is there is no persona that works. Accomplished professional with a Pulitzer Prize is too intimidating, caring mom too weak. Combining both is a mommy wars minefield.

The solution, of course, is to simply accept Power as a complex individual with the right to a private life and evaluate her based on her ideas and professional actions. But that would be breaking a long media tradition.

Read The Princess Effect at Politico Magazine

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8 Responses to Political princesses

  1. Wow I really like what you have written, very thought provoking, thank you x

  2. Did you see this 14July response from Melissa Golden? It seems like something that deserves a response.

  3. Yes, I did, and responded (though got no response to my response). My article was a critique of a system, not of the individuals within it. Golden is a professional doing her job and the brief mention of her does not imply otherwise. I would encourage people to read Golden’s original blog post in full, then my article in full, and make up their own minds.

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