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Working out and being hawt: the partisan double standard

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, May 10, 2011 13:42 EDT
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Jill has a great post up about the double standard for showing off your body if you're a politician, in response to this cover of Men's Health. Yes, that's Aaron Schock, a Republican congressman from Illinois, and those are his abs.  Jill points out that this would be the scandal of the fucking year if that was a female congresswoman.  Not to defend Sarah Palin, but think of all the crap she got when she posed for Runner's World fully dressed.

Of course, the irony is that both Palin and Schock are being sexually provocative, but he's just outdoing her by a mile, because he's a conservative man and he can.  And she got away with it as far as she did because she's also Republican.  Jill says: "Now try to picture Erin Schock, newly elected to Congress, single and a conservative Baptist with some sick abs, on the cover of Women’s Health. Just sayin’."  And to that I say, that could be a problem.  A national scandal, however, would be Erin Schock, pro-choice Democratic congresswoman from Illinois.  The double standard is a male/female one, but that gets projected onto the Republican/Democratic divide. 

I've always been mildly fascinated by how Republicans are permitted far more space to be fitness dorks than Democrats in our culture.  Bush and Clinton had similar workout routines, in terms of going jogging in public, but Clinton was mocked ruthlessly for it and Bush was mostly ignored.  (Turned out that Clinton probably needed it more, what with his heart problems.)  Obama's dedication to playing sports is less of an issue in the mainstream media than Clinton's jogging, but right wingers still make hay of it in a way that liberals wouldn't if the shoe was on the other foot.  Maybe part of it is that health and fitness are turning into culture war issues, and liberals are generally going to fall on the pro-health side.  We feel the sting of hypocrisy in a way conservatives don't, and so seeing someone on the Other Side do something we approve of isn't going to cause us to waste energy trying to make an issue out of it. 

But the elephant in the room on this issue is gender and sexuality, and that's why I think Republicans have a lot more space not only to be fit but to make a fuss over it, as Palin, Schock, and Paul Ryan all do.  Trying to untangle working out as a health practice and as a hobby from the perceived sexual benefits is impossible in our cultural landscape (though obviously individuals do fine, so I don't necessarily see the value of commenters saying because some individuals do it, my cultural observations are invalidated).  So what you have when someone is a workout fanatic and a cultural conservative is the conservative trope of the Sexy Virgin.  By "Sexy Virgin", I don't mean a literal virgin, but someone who is assumed to be sexually conservative and properly judgmental of others, but who plays up their own sexual appeal. The right loves them some Sexy Virgins.  Sexy Virgins exist to reassure people on the right that just because they're anti-sex means they aren't sexy people.  (Much in the same way that black conservatives work to reassure the racists in the Republican party that they're not racist even if they really don't think the President was born here.)  One of the most amusing things about anti-choicers is that they're always trying to claim the pro-choice side is a bunch of sexless hags, and on the occasion they can get a pretty young woman to be a spokesperson (see: Lila Rose, who knows she's a Sexy Virgin and who uses the poses of ingenue starlets in her publicity photos), they're all over it.  The sexless part of being anti-sex is their Achilles' heel, and Sexy Virgins work to counteract that problem.  Leaving me in a constant state of amusement, since the two attacks I frequently get in tandem from antis are: a) you're a slutty slut slut and b) you're a dried-out hag. 

Here's an amusing story of the Sexy Virgin vs. people who perhaps are less interested in the internal politics of right wingers reassuring themselves.  Needless to say, if you haven't encountered the Sexy Virgin much, perhaps it's a little harder to realize that her sexiness is supposed to denote chastity within the circles of Bible-thumpers. You might just think that sexy is supposed to be about sex and not about not-sex. 

Anyway.  There's a strong strain in our culture of allowing people to be sexy if there's heavy reassurance that their actual sexuality is controlled.  Democrats, who are mostly pro-choice, perversely don't get to be sexy because that provokes anxieties that their support for sexual rights means, gasp, lurking affection for bona fide sexual freedom and we can't have that.  So that's where we're at when it comes to the national image-making process around the partisan divide.  Anti-sex views being sold with sexiness while pro-sex folks are, believe me, often deeply worried about making sure their collars are high enough when they go on TV to talk about abortion rights. 

Of course, that's on the national level.  On the local and in-group media level, things are way different. Lila Rose is put forth as the national face of anti-choicers as much as possible on their side, so she can pout and flutter her eyelashes and try to sell you not-sex with sex.  Paul Ryan and Aaron Schock are feeding the press stories and now photos of their sex-ay bodies.  Let's not talk about Sarah Palin.  But on the local and in-group level, right wing media still mostly features a bunch of angry old dudes and church lady sorts hollering about girls these days with their birth control pills and low moral standards.  Meanwhile, the pro-choice movement tries to be attractive-but-not-sexy when putting ourselves in front of the national media, but on the local and in-group level, you're much more likely to see sex-positive feminism being promoted by women who are happy to wear whatever the fuck they like. 

I have more thoughts on gender, working out, and modesty, but that's another post since this one is long enough.  Maybe tonight.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
 
 
 
 
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