Hillary Clinton has again made the cover of Time magazine. This time, instead of appearing in typical human form, she is presented as a photo illustration Frankenstein’s monster — she is a navy pantsuit leg, a modest black pump, and a bizarre accessory: a diminutive man in a suit flailing from the point of her gargantuan heel. It’s time for another round of “Is this media representation of a female politician sexist?”
First: An impassioned defense of the choice. The illustration evocatively conveys the content of the accompanying story, which examines how Clinton and her supporters are navigating the will-she-or-won’t-she period before the 2016 presidential campaigns are officially under way. The Time piece is about how Clinton has such immense power and recognition in the political arena that going about her “private” life seems practically indistinguishable from launching a campaign in earnest. Portraying the candidate with simply her first name and a gigantic iconic pantsuit leg is a nod to her untouchable icon status. Clinton has, in fact, paired a navy pantsuit with 1-inch black pumps, and she’s effectively parlayed the mocking backlash about her sartorial choices into her own brand. At the 2013 Council of Fashion Designers of America awards, she jokingly pitched Bravo a “Project Pantsuit” series; in her Twitter bio, she calls herself a “pantsuit aficionado.”
And characterizing her competition as comparatively powerless men is not off-base. “Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, a hero of the left, has repeatedly said she would not challenge Clinton in the primary,” David Von Drehle writes. “Likewise, Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand of New York and Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota — who might otherwise vie to be the first female president — have said they would support her candidacy. ‘I think if another woman ran against Hillary, she would bring down the wrath of women around the country,’ said one veteran Democratic strategist.” The only Democrats who have publicly toyed with the idea of taking on Hillary in 2016 are dudes. And those men — like former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer — do appear puny in comparison to Hillary’s clout. Clinton is not exactly required to “run” for president like lesser candidates; she appears to be strolling casually into the nomination, trampling her potential competition with ease. (Though, side note: We thought that last time, too.)
On the other hand: A giant woman trampling over a measly businessman suggests a form of power beyond the political. The cover trades in the imagery of several sexual fetishes — macrophilia, in which (mostly) male fetishists get off on images of (mostly) female giants; trampling, in which (mostly) female dominant parties walk all over (mostly) male submissives; and the common foot fetish, which also looms large over the image. As psychologist Helen Friedman told Salon in a story about macrophilia in 1999, the fetish often appears so gendered because, “We live in a patriarchal culture … Women already see men as larger and more powerful. They don’t need to fantasize it.”
The image of a towering heel squashing a tiny man is sexualized in certain subcultures, but it’s also used by the mainstream media to connote female power in general. As Jessica Valenti and The Cut have cataloged, stock-photo searches for “feminist” and “businesswoman” regularly turn up images that look indistinguishable from the Time cover; Valenti calls this the “Mean Feminists With Shoes and Poor Emasculated Dudes” look. The depiction doesn’t show high-powered women competing against male rivals, fair and square; it suggests that the very existence of the feminine in business and politics constitutes a threat to men. It’s both sexist and hacky. In turn, trample fetishists mine these “feminist” stock photos for masturbatory material. (You have learned something new.)
Clinton’s presumptive bid to become the first female president does position her as a powerhouse poised to stomp through the patriarchal status quo. But when publications like Time frame that feminist pursuit with images of women in pointy heels that leave feminized male “victims” in their wake, they undermine the female politician’s power even as they attempt to acknowledge it.
© 2013, Slate