Of all of the bewildering reversals that Scott Brown represents as the new Republican senator from Massachusetts, the way his perceived hotness has inexorably taken center stage is particularly intriguing. What does it mean, if anything, for female politicians?
Frank Bruni's profile of Brown in the most recent New York Times Magazine is a perplexing case study in the Brown phenomenon.
Profiles of female politicians are, in my mind, always subject to a loose "Would they write this about a man?" test. Classic examples include much of the coverage of Hillary Clinton and a widely critiqued New York Times profile of Condoleeza Rice in 2000, which included her dress size, her grooming habits, and information about her diet.
As in, a profile of a man would never include his measurements (Scott Brown's: "6-foot-1, 32-inch waist, 34-inch inseam, 15½-inch neck, size 40 suit jacket, size 10 shoes.") Or make sure you know that in addition to being a driven careerist, he's committed to family life (Brown: basketball with Ayla, movie nights with Arianna). Or have readily available scenes in which people shout at the candidate, "You're gorgeous." (This happens to Scott Brown a lot, according to the piece.)
You get where I'm going with this. This is not Bruni's doing so much as it is Brown's. It's been pointed out that a woman would have been felled by a nude Cosmo. And in a Vanity Fair/60 Minutes poll released today, 66 percent of Americans (and 77 percent of women) agreed that a woman would never have gotten away with what Brown did.
But Cosmo turns out to be no blush-inducing aberration in Brown's biography. In addition to the now iconic pink shorts on the first date anecdote, the profile includes the following examples of Brown embracing the emphasis on his looks:
"Are you kidding me?" [friend Michael] Quinn says. "He had posters made of himself - not that Cosmo picture - but one of him in jeans with the top button undone, and he was shirtless." Quinn says that Brown tried, without much success, to sell them for something like $5 a pop. "He was always very entrepreneurial," he says.
"Say I had a friend's birthday and didn't know what to give her," Ayla recalls, referring to her early teens. "He'd say, ‘Well, I have some old Cosmo posters in the basement.' " She adds that he was mostly joking, as he is when it's his turn for grace at the dinner table. "He'll say, ‘Dear God, thank you for letting me win my race today.' We'll be like, ‘Dad, you can't thank God for that!' And he'll say: ‘What? God's listening. God likes what I have to say.' "
Okay, the God stuff isn't about Brown cashing in on his looks, but it does provide more fodder for the intuitive comparison of Brown and Sarah Palin — as Michael Wolff put it, "There's the sex vibe, the exhibitionism and preening, the weird family stuff, the phony authenticity, and the euphoric sense of his own arrival. With both Scott Brown and Sarah Palin, there's a come-hither thing, a swagger, an invitation." One 49-year-old Massachusetts woman, Ruth Eldredge, quoted in the piece says her dream ticket is Romney for President, Brown for Vice President, and Palin as Secretary of State. "They'd be so good-looking that people would just love us," she tells Bruni. "They're beautiful!"
But there is a key difference between Brown and Palin, which comes down to what Bruni coyly referred to as "some key information" that was left out of the Cosmo centerfold.
If Sarah Palin wielded her attractiveness as few female candidates had ventured to do before, thus contorting any discussions of sexism, Brown is an even more unusual case, one that presents a paradox for him. He may get away with cashing in on his personal magnetism — because it's a novelty for a man who may implicitly get the benefit of the doubt on the gravitas front, or because it's concomitant with a culture that prizes biography and overnight success over policy mastery. And yet Bruni, at the very least, implies that all this will be a liability if Brown doesn't prove himself to be more than a pretty face.
And as much as Brown can't stop talking about how much he loved Jon Hamm's imitation of him — bizarrely, it's hard to imagine Saturday Night Live finding it acceptable to joke about a woman senator seducing her way through the Senate — he's also trying hard to prove both that he's got what it takes and that he isn't just a cowboyish heartthrob:
I got the sense that he was sanding the edges of his reputation and answering complaints from opponents that he's too macho, shallow and backward. He talked about how supportive he is of Huff's journalistic career, which barred her from campaign appearances, lest she seem ideologically biased, and said that he irons her clothes as well as his own - and knows how to sew to boot.
So maybe Brown, despite having beaten a qualified female candidate, will actually be good for female politicians, if only by inserting his body and his looks and his marriage into the discussion a way that has been so far foisted upon most women in politics. Progress?