The Celebrity Makeover
The 'Max Factor'
This week the challenge to John Howard's Federal seat of Bennelong became high stakes indeed as ex-ABC journalist Maxine McKew for the first time outpolled the Prime Minister.
Should McKew succeed Howard will go down in history as only the second Prime Minister to suffer the indignity of losing his seat. His predessor, Stanley Melbourne Bruce casts a ghostly aura of historical deja-vu around John Howard. Bruce used the surprisingly resonant catchphrase 'Men, Money and Markets' as the basis for his economic strategy and pursued radical reform of the arbitration system that would have imposed penalties for industrial action, and new awards to drive down wages and increase hours. His proposed IR policies were central to the 1929 federal election in which Bruce was ousted from his seat of Flinders by the Secretary of the Victorian Trades Hall Council, E. J. Holloway.
Working under political shadows with such reach, along with the Galaxy poll results, McKew will surely become the most watched candidate in the coming election. How will her being a woman determine the nature of that appraisal?
In her characteristically unassuming manner Maxine McKew dismissed her recent description as the ‘sexiest woman in politics’. As an experienced journalist she knows that ‘two guys made that up in some office’.
McKew is right. Such appointments and rankings, from ‘pop divas’ to ‘gangster fashionistas’ to ‘celebrity intellectuals’ to ‘media tarts’, are very often made by journalists and very often they are men.
As journalists they are alive to the lenses through which the public appraises the persona. As men they know the conventions for viewing women in public: the persistent and pervasive judgement of their visual and sexual appeal. Celebrity itself ads the veneer of glamour and sex to public women whether they welcome it or not.
When McKew dismisses the significance of these cultural habits, she herself draws on an unstated edict that applies to all women who are publicly visible. If she were to respond, ‘It’s true that I’m a looker and of course it’s part of my political capital,’ it would spell the end of her Bennelong aspirations as surely as if she had driven a stake through the heart of Rupert Murdoch.
It is strictly verboten, an absolute taboo, for a woman to betray any self-awareness of her visual appeal - even women like Kylie Minogue who trade on their physical attractions in the absence of much else. When Andrew Denton asked the exquisite Natalie Imbruglia if she thought of herself as beautiful, she was stumped. She knew she’d been positioned on a perilous threshold. Own up to her looks and she risked capsizing her popular appeal. For a beautiful woman can never, ever state the bleeding obvious, ‘well, I’ve got eyes too’. A woman who trades on her visual appeal can never, ever admit to being calculating about it.
On her acceptance of a golden globe for her work in Monster Charlize Theron put a pretty hand to her lovely brow and declared, ‘This is insane. I grew up in a farm in South Africa’. Be that as it may, a cursory glance around the room would reveal the simple fact that every actress present, no matter how exceptional their ability, trades on her beauty. Not one of them put themselves forward for a Hollywood career without using their eyes, appraising the fact of their beauty and calculating its cultural worth. The beauty of the film star is etched into their contract as an ineluctable condition of their public recognition. Whatever else they may bring to their celebrity – genius, charm, grit, quirk, family connection, political conviction, or substance abuse - their beauty came first.
McKew also has eyes, and as a journalist she is aware that the conditions and conventions of feminine visibility cross over the increasingly porous line between celebrity and politician. They sometimes do for men with good looks. Keating was a case in point. When he also displayed a penchant for wicked irreverence, ruinous wit and passionate conviction, he had half the electorate at least swooning in their ballot boxes, and the other half wishing they could attract as many true believers.
For visible women, however, the appraisal of their looks precedes all other modes of recognition. Good looks aren’t a bonus as they were for Keating. While a seasoned and effective advocate will be respected for the fact of her good works, good looks are nevertheless increasingly a condition of women’s public visibility.
This the fray McKew enters. It’s hardly news, particularly for women television journalists for whom looks can be a measure of career prospects. But there are two separate claims operating within her appointment as the ‘sexiest woman in politics’. One is beauty, which is made up of a powerful mix of universally accepted traits and culturally determined values, such as clarity and symmetry of features, combined with youth and race. The other is sex, which is even more troubling when it comes to women politicians.
The sexual appeal of public women clearly is not reducible to the conventions of 'raunch culture', suggestive or explicit exposure, or flirtatious posturing. Sex appeal starts with beauty and then depends on a contradiction at work in the persona. The contradiction at work in Munroe was angel/whore, in Minogue it is child/woman, in Gillard it is strine/smart and in McKew it is competence/charm. She is coolly capable and warmly connected. As well as esteemed and liked, it made her a formidable interviewer.
‘Max Factor’ is a clever description; . It references the glamour of cosmetic couture, while it plays with an unstated recognition that McKew brings to the political stage qualities beyond the armoury needed to equip any political aspirant. McKew is good-looking, elegant and charming, none of which should have any bearing on her political prospects. No matter how she plays these traits – and she has signalled she will not consciously play them - her visibility will bear on the success of her campaign. That is, as long as too much consideration is given to presentation and personality and not enough to policy and power.
Liz Conor is a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Melbourne.