Camila Vallejo, the 23-year-old president of the University of Chile student federation, is the much-beloved face of a populist uprising that some are calling the "Chilean winter." And she's also a babe, a fact some reporters just can't get over.
The New York Times Magazine ran a piece this weekend entitled, "Camila Vallejo, the World's Most Glamorous Revolutionary," in which writer Francisco Goldman implies Vallejo is as effective as she is largely because she is beautiful. The first paragraph quotes a bartender who supports Vallejo because she is "hot," and we learn that she is a "Botticelli beauty who wears a silver nose ring" before we hear that she's also "the most prominent leader of a student protest movement that had paralyzed the country and shattered Chile's image as Latin America's greatest political and economic success story." Although Goldman notes that "Vallejo guards her private life with iron discipline," he does his best to report on it — she "languorously" makes out with her boyfriend in public, for example. We also learn, for some reason, that Franz Ferdinand's lead singer has a crush on her. Fun personal details make for great stories, so we're not saying Goldman should have refrained completely from discussing the superficial throughout the lengthy piece — but there's a difference between observing inarguable facts (Vallejo is pretty) and making it seem like Vallejo's pretty face defines her.
It's not just the Times that's fixated on Vallejo's beauty — check out this amazingly sexist description from a Newsweek/Daily Beast profile: "Camila Amaranta Vallejo Dowling is not your cookie-cutter revolutionary. With soft green eyes, a silver nose ring, and 63,000 fans on Facebook, the Santiago-born student leader would be a better fit on the catwalks than at the barricades." Hear that? She should've been a model! Vallejo is totes wasting her looks on leading student protests that close down sections of the capital and have already forced two education ministers to resign. She's successfully put educational reform at the forefront of the parliamentary agenda — no biggie. Please tell us more about how pretty she is!
Goldman told me that he was unhappy with the headline choice for his piece but that he doesn't think he focused on her hotness more than her accomplishments. "Her looks are part of the phenomenon, and part of her charisma," he said. "She is an extraordinarily beautiful young woman. No one can help talking about it, and she's aware of it, and she knows how to use it." Hugo Lindgren, the magazine's editor-in-chief, acknowledged that the story referred to her appearance but said "they are inherent to her worldwide popularity, which is something that Vallejo herself has discussed." He wrote in an email that the story "also goes far, far beyond a discussion of her looks, for nearly 6,000 words, into her role in shaping Chile's student movement, her political maneuverings and her vision for the future of the country...To suggest that he was merely focusing on Vallejo's looks, rather than reporting on Chileans' response to her in all its facets, seems to me to be a misrepresentation of our story."
Vallejo's looks are definitely part of her narrative — and her appeal — but it's possible to cover her appearance in a less sexist way. Take this Guardian piece, in which the reporter actually asked Vallejo how she felt about the whole thing. "You have to recognize that beauty can be a hook," she said. "It can be a compliment, they come to listen to me because of my appearance, but then I explain the ideas. A movement as historical as this cannot be summarized in such superficial terms." Vallejo has the agency to use her looks to hook revolutionaries, but it's different to hook readers by framing a story around her sex appeal. Would a publication ever describe a male revolutionary in the same way? Consider how Goldman describes Jose Soto, the president of the school's student group, as simply "a tall adolescent with a solemn air" while Karol Cariola, the secretary general of the Communist youth, is "dark-haired and dark-eyed ... people are always debating who is more beautiful, Camila or Karol." It's possible that the Chilean uprising lacks a sexy male counterpart to Vallejo, but that's not really the issue. Excessively highlighting Vallejo's "glamour" undermines Goldman's otherwise stellar article, as well as Vallejo's work and her importance.