Posted Friday, June 12, 2009, at 9:20 AM
I was intrigued by Willa Paskin's take-down of Naomi Wolf's latest in Harper’s Bazaar and entirely primed to read an annoying "absurd, overwrought, swooning love letter to Angelina Jolie, the woman who, in Wolf’s analysis, most fully embodies "having it all," as Paskin put it. But I think Wolf actually has a point. Jolie has managed to successfully create an archetypic persona, Wolf writes, "one that really, for the first time in modern culture, brings together almost every aspect of female empowerment and liberation." To put it more directly-she manages to successfully combine a vast array of different female archetypes that have historically been seen as being incompatible with each other.
So you can be respected as a symbol of goodness (Florence Nightingale, Mother Teresa) but not, obviously, be seen as sexual. You can have a hot sex life (Marlene Dietrich) but not at the same time be seen as a symbol of goodness. You can't get away with it. (Somehow, when an icon who was at once both a sexual being and engaged in good deeds died in a violent accident-Princess Di, of course-the story had a kind of terrible narrative inevitability.) You can take a lover-and even be a home wrecker-but not claim the hope of being seen as a good mom (Madame Bovary, Elizabeth Taylor). You can't get away with it. You can have money, fame, and a dazzling career, but you must surely be depressed, drug addicted, lonely, or self-destructive (Jacqueline Susann, Marilyn Monroe). You can't get away with it.
The magic of Jolie's self-presentation? She makes the claim, with her life and actions, that, indeed, you can get away with it. All of it. Against every Western convention, she has managed to draw together all of these kinds of female liberation and empowerment.
But you don't have to look to historic figures like Dietrich or Monroe or Nightingale to see famous women still struggling to combine it all. Just look at Sarah Palin.
Like Jolie, Palin flies a plane , has a greater than average number of kids, a good-looking husband, beauty-pageant good looks, a hair and make-up team (at least during the campaign), an international profile, and the ability to command extraordinary levels of media attention. Unlike Jolie, however, Palin cannot seem to get away with anything. Some of this may be the result of their handlers-Jolie, as the far richer of the two, can afford more people and appears to have a more sophisticated media team for her arena than Palin does for hers -and some the result of their different politics and lifestyle choices. Some of it likely has to do with their different manners of speaking-folksy versus sophisticated-and Jolie's greater gift for mythmaking self-display, as well.
But a large part of it, surely, has to do with the fact that, as women have transitioned into new roles over the past century, we've wound up with two systems in which they can operate-what I've come to think of as the system of power and the system of beauty. Most actresses succeed first within the system of beauty, moving later into roles where they take on other forms of power as directors, studio owners, or crusaders for various causes.
Most women in politics, in contrast, begin within the system of power-a system from which women have historically been excluded. Jolie may look like she's "got it all," but she's still combining mainly female archetypes as an emissary from the system of beauty. And she's most prominently an international spokeswoman for children who are displaced victims of conflict-the kind of work traditionally done by first ladies more than presidents. (That's not to say she's not having a powerful impact; my friends in the international development arena tell me she's had one.) She dresses beautifully, is a clothing spokesmodel, a movie star.
But Palin is a governor-the first female chief executive of the most male-dominated state in the nation-and was trying to be the first female vice president. She has tried and still tries to meld archetypically masculine roles with traditionally feminine ones while contending for prominence within the system of power-a much tougher challenge, and one that leads to things like cracks about her "slutty flight attendant" look from the likes of David Letterman (among many other things). Remember the controversy of Hillary Clinton's hint of cleavage? Or how the then-Mary Bono traded in her long California hair for a severe brunette 'do after taking her husband's slot in office? (She's since let it grow long again.)
Women in politics by and large practice the politics of physical negation, where an early goal is finding a look that's pleasantly unremarkable, so people can focus on the words and work. There are consultants who work with women leaders around the globe to help them find these happy middle-grounds. The higher they ascend, the more the problem created by the simultaneous need for erasure and visibility recurs.
In the past, there has been chatter about Jolie toying with a bid for office. It would be a true test of her abilities if she could make the transition to the much harsher system of power while preserving her present persona. I suspect, however, even she would have trouble holding all her archetypes together if she did so.