February 26, 2005

Power and image.

My post about Condoleezza Rice on GlennReynolds.com brought a lot of email, some of which I reprint here, but one email really stood out. Reader Edward Tabakin makes a brilliant association between Rice's new look and the new image devised by Queen Elizabeth I as she rose to power:
Ms. Givhan wrote in her article that "Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power . . . . the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature." Well, maybe her mind. My mind went to historical movies and history. The scene that came to mind was the one at the end in the movie "Elizabeth," with Cate Blanchett in the leading role. Elizabeth has foiled the Pope's plot to kill her and ordered the deaths of the conspirators, including the man she might have married had her life turned out a little differently. In the last scene, she makes herself up in a new look: she cuts her hair short, applies makeup almost like pancake makeup to whiten her face; she creates the image of Elizabeth R.

Elizabeth is famous for one particular speech, which she gave to the troops, the soldiers, sailors and marines, who were about to go out to fight the Spanish Armada. Spain was the great military power at the time, and England was a second or third rate upstart. Elizabeth was about 55 years old at the time 1588, roughly the same age the Dr. Rice is now. The photo of Dr. Rice before the troops also made me think of Elizabeth's Armada speech. Here it is:

My loving people, we have been persuaded by some, that are careful of our safety, to take heed how we commit ourselves to armed multitudes, for fear of treachery; but I assure you, I do not desire to live to distrust my faithful and loving people. Let tyrants fear; I have always so behaved myself that, under God, I have placed my chiefest strength and safeguard in the loyal hearts and good will of my subjects. And therefore I am come amongst you at this time, not as for my recreation or sport, but being resolved, in the midst and heat of the battle, to live or die amongst you all; to lay down, for my God, and for my kingdom, and for my people, my honor and my blood, even the dust. I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too; and think foul scorn that Parma or Spain, or any prince of Europe, should dare to invade the borders of my realms: to which, rather than any dishonor should grow by me, I myself will take up arms; I myself will be your general, judge, and rewarder of every one of your virtues in the field. I know already, by your forwardness, that you have deserved rewards and crowns; and we do assure you, on the word of a prince, they shall be duly paid you. In the mean my lieutenant general shall be in my stead, than whom never prince commanded a more noble and worthy subject; not doubting by your obedience to my general, by your concord in the camp, and by your valor in the field, we shall shortly have a famous victory over the enemies of my God, of my kingdom, and of my people.

"I know I have but the body of a weak and feeble woman; but I have the heart of a king, and of a king of England, too." Wow, who wrote that, Shakespeare? Cutting through the 16th century english, it's an amazing and inspiring speech. As every school child once knew, the English won that battle, defeated the Armada, and because the great island empire. Nineteen years later, the first settlers landed in Jamestown.

When I think about image and political power, the first movie that springs to my mind is this one. Too much focus on image ought to alarm us. We should worry that a political figure means to reach down past our reason to some primal level where we cannot defend against manipulation.

But Rice's new look does not consist of very much. Surely, it is not the sort of extreme and shocking transformation chosen by Elizabeth. But like Elizabeth, Rice must convince the world that she has the "heart of a king." We should not pretend woman are judged in the same way as men. Saying that you believe it is wrong to judge us differently does not make it stop. Even if you sincerely want to believe and even do believe that a woman can be a great world leader, something involuntary, underneath your conscious reason, may still say: but no, not her, she cannot be the one, this does not feel right. Whoever does overcome that prejudice and become the first woman President will need to be able to reach into that part of our mind and turn it around.

It may seem bizarre that thin, three-inch heels could dislodge that last grip of prejudice. How many times have feminists written that high heels symbolize sexual vulnerability by making a show of the woman's inability to run away? That is too rational. Something much less accessible to the rational mind occurred when people gazed on that photograph of the Secretary of State. Something in that image -- the heels, the black, the brass buttons? -- had a very strong effect.

If there were some way to figure out exactly how to devise an image that would make people accept the exercise of power, we would be in trouble. Or perhaps not: all who seek power would simply adopt that image and that would cancel out image as a factor, leveling the playing field. To a great extent, men have hit upon an answer: the dark suit, the white shirt, the red tie. But a woman who just adopts the power-seeking man's look would set off a whole different set of associations. Women need to find some other way, something similar perhaps, but also different.

In the historic movement of women into power, how women look matters, and Condoleezza Rice played a role. Those high-heeled boots belong in the Smithsonian, do they not?

ADDED: Even the men's power look is complicated, as a reader points out the recent shift to blue ties. Another reader asks whether Condi Rice is Galadriel and quotes this, from "The Fellowship of the Rings":
"In place of a Dark Lord you would set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!"

MORE: Several people have emailed to say that running is not much of a sign of strength -- especially if you're talking about commanding the military. Standing your ground is the stronger position.

Another thing about those thin high heels: not only are they named after a weapon -- the stiletto -- but they exert a heavy force by concentrating your weight on a small point. Stiletto heels are quite damaging to floors for this reason. You could really hurt someone stepping on their toes with a stiletto heel: that's a power image.

And, of course, heels make you taller.

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