Friday, February 25, 2005

On Sex and Power

Robin Givhan in the Washington Post muses on the way Condoleezza Rice is dressed:

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice arrived at the Wiesbaden Army Airfield on Wednesday dressed all in black. She was wearing a black skirt that hit just above the knee, and it was topped with a black coat that fell to mid-calf. The coat, with its seven gold buttons running down the front and its band collar, called to mind a Marine's dress uniform or the "save humanity" ensemble worn by Keanu Reeves in "The Matrix."

As Rice walked out to greet the troops, the coat blew open in a rather swashbuckling way to reveal the top of a pair of knee-high boots. The boots had a high, slender heel that is not particularly practical. But it is a popular silhouette because it tends to elongate and flatter the leg. In short, the boots are sexy.

Givhan then goes on to interpret this outfit as the way a woman can look powerful:

Rice boldly eschewed the typical fare chosen by powerful American women on the world stage. She was not wearing a bland suit with a loose-fitting skirt and short boxy jacket with a pair of sensible pumps. She did not cloak her power in photogenic hues, a feminine brooch and a non-threatening aesthetic. Rice looked as though she was prepared to talk tough, knock heads and do a freeze-frame "Matrix" jump kick if necessary. Who wouldn't give her ensemble a double take -- all the while hoping not to rub her the wrong way?

Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power -- such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal. When looking at the image of Rice in Wiesbaden, the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature. To shadowy daydreams. Dominatrix! It is as though sex and power can only co-exist in a fantasy. When a woman combines them in the real world, stubborn stereotypes have her power devolving into a form that is purely sexual.

Rice challenges expectations and assumptions. There is undeniable authority in her long black jacket with its severe details and menacing silhouette. The darkness lends an air of mystery and foreboding. Black is the color of intellectualism, of abstinence, of penitence. If there is any symbolism to be gleaned from Rice's stark garments, it is that she is tough and focused enough for whatever task is at hand.

A dominatrix indeed...

Givhan's article is annoying in that it drapes the issue of female power into an issue of clothing, as if we could all be powerful by just finding the right things to wear. On the other hand, she (or he?) has a point: there is no generally accepted way for a woman in power to dress. But to borrow from the sexual arena seems a big mistake to me, because so many of the sexual signs of female power make women into passive objects of adulation, not into active leaders.

Take the high heels that Givhan mentions:

Countless essays and books have been written about the erotic nature of high heels. There is no need to reiterate in detail the reasons why so many women swear by uncomfortable three-inch heels and why so many men are happy that they do. Heels change the way a woman walks, forcing her hips to sway. They alter her posture in myriad enticing ways, all of which are politically incorrect to discuss.

The politically incorrect parts probably have to do with the fact that a woman in high heels is showing her availability for sex in two ways: first, her pelvis is tilted to receive rear-entry and second, she is clearly unable to run away. Or so I imagine. Though high heels are also excellent weapons of self-defense, especially if used against the eyes of the attacker. Just kidding, just kidding! Don't quote me on any of this and don't try any of this at home.

I have never been able to learn how to walk in high heels, so whenever I wear them I end up barefoot, carrying the damn things strapped together around my neck. Which gives me an idea for power-dressing women: how about a pair of stiletto heels hanging from a belt? Or better still, a sword?