When I was 20 I developed a theory that Ann Coulter was actually a particularly skillful performance artist/satirist. The idea was that Coulter, far from being a bat shit crazy right winger, was in fact a savvy cultural commentator simultaneously making visible and absurd the (then) small and largely ignored extremist fringe of the GOP base. Coulter–who refused to answer questions about her political allegiance, only dated liberal semi-public figures, counted as her closest friends a cadre of non-Republican gay men–would traipse into any venue and spew what at that time seemed like the most vitriolic, I’ve-just-lost-my-mind-and-I’m-using-my-hallucinations-as-punditry, asinine opinions. With lines like “public school teachers just want to do blow in the bathroom and rape our kids,” Coulter seemed too over the top to be real.
Enter the era of Sarah Palin and now Michele Bachmann. Nevermind! Either Coulter was actually the first of her kind, or my theory was correct and she was astutely predicting the rise of the Did you really just fucking SAY that white-lady-in-politics. Or both. Or bitch just needed to get PAID.
Either way, the farcical dedication to privatizing ALL things, the hate speak that hearkens back to the dark ages of mid-century America, and the regressive views about a woman’s place in society that Bachmann (and Palin before her) spout incessantly remind me a lot of Ms. Coulter. Except that they’re actually less funny because there’s no seeming winking absurdity lacing their points.
I’ve been thinking about Coulter’s early work as I’ve been watching the political rise of the Antichrist–I mean, Michele Bachmann. But there’s something other than her culturally apocalyptic worldview that’s been worming its way under my skin. Something familiar and troubling about her presentation. Something Coulter had hints of, but never took all the way.
It’s her subtly regressive fashion.
Bachmann’s look is one that borrows from the time to which she and all of her koo-koo-la cronies and supporters would presumably return–the ’50s. While everyone’s talking about how her hair is the new “Rachel,” how her campaign ensembles borrow from Hillary Clinton‘s corporate approach (incorrect if you look more closely), and how her make-up is flawless, I can’t help but notice the angle and height of the waistlines on her jackets and dresses, her pearls, and the cut of her necklines.
She is a walking, talking, subliminal message of regressive everything. Don’t believe me? Let’s compare some images of Bachmann to some images of the dominant ’50s feminine ideal.
Part of me REALLY wants to rip on everything there, but far be it for me to join the ranks of those who shallowly critique the aesthetics of a female “politician.” Let’s just say it’s all wretched. WRETCHED. Beyond the wretched, though, is the high, tight waist emphasized by a full skirt and capped by an evening shawl. In the early ’50s, these elements were part of the “New Look.”
The New Look was a style created and coined by Dior in 1947, erasing the wartime image of the self-reliant, Rosie the Riveter-style working woman and replacing her with a perfect image of feminine domesticity. The New Look created a silhouette that seamlessly blended naivete and sexuality. And it would dominate women’s fashion for ten BOOORING years. Interestingly, the New Look was also the name of Eisenhower’s nuclear strategy, but that’s a different blog for a different time and place.
Bachmann’s fashion repertoire is certainly an update of the New Look, and she (or her stylists) often mix signifiers in unappealing ways–a cocktail dress neckline combined with an evening dress skirt combined with ugly–but many of the basic lines and silhouette strategies remain intact even in her more “corporate” looks. If you disregard the hairstyle, the fabric choices, and many of the color palates, you’ll see the ghost of bygone femininity in the slope of her jacket collars, the alignment of her buttons, and the angles of her necklines.
And don’t even get me started on the pearls. Which is to say, get me started on the pearls. Pearls are an interesting precious thing (jewel? gem? nice rock? mineral deposit?) grown in the belly of a garbage-eating mollusk and Michele Bachmann loves them. LOVES THEM.
Pearls have gone in and out of fashion since the Greeks began associating them with Aphrodite. Wealthy women during the Renaissance would wear dresses covered in pearls so that when they walked the pearls would catch the sunlight, giving the wearer an other-worldly glow. To become a terrestrial sun and blind the peasants selling you bread–that’s the ultimate symbol of power. We don’t live among the Medicis, however. We live in what Bachmann and her supporters like to think of as a Christian nation and in Christianity, pearls symbolize purity, perfection, and knowledge.
The New Look was also all about pearls. The perfect purity angle really rounded out the aesthetic projection of the domestic ideal.
It’s not a new thing–women in politics wearing pearls. It’s an institutionalized accessory: Michelle Obama often wears a string of pearls, but it feels different for a woman who ran a hospital and who fights for progressive food reform to sport a minimalist necklace of pearls around her neck. When she does it, it has a sort of sophisticate, Breakfast at Tiffany’s feel. Bachmann’s pearls bring with them a darker reference, one that compliments her politics of female submissiveness (ironic, given her rage-filled persona).
Bachmann is using siginifiers as ideological manipulation–reclaiming passivity as a new brand of faux-empowerment–and this is what is perhaps the most troubling about the way in which she and her minion of evil stylists draw from the New Look. They continuously blend elements of a style meant to get women back to the kitchen with what is always described as a corporate, women-to-work “power” look. Beyond creating a really odd sort of dissonant aesthetic–pearls and power pant suits don’t really go well together–this creates a subliminal visual message that aligns feminine leadership with a decade whose dominant messaging was one of feminine docility, submissiveness, and complete economic reliance. Hey ladies! Your most powerful asset is your ability to make a killer casserole. Given that Bachmann’s religious beliefs would put women back in the Dark Ages, this doesn’t come as such a surprise. It’s still pretty frightening, though. I mean, at least Ann Coulter can shoot a handgun.