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Wednesday, April 29, 2009

While Tony Snow Fights Cancer, Dana Perino Takes Over the Press 'Gaggle' ...with her "Big Girl Panties" on?

According to the Washington Post, Dana Perino, deputy press secretary who's stepping in for Tony Snow, was told by Education Secretary Margaret Spellings to "Put your big-girl panties on." In the same 'tough panties' vein, PoliticsDaily has a sub-site called Woman Up. The motto: "Woman Up: Where Big-Girl Panties Are Always a Fit."

There's been some debate amongst feminist circles lately whether phrases like "woman up" and "put your big girl panties on" really do women any favors. I'm especially intrigued with the panty reference. Are we saying that being a larger, more mature woman is where the power is at? Or are we yet again just talking about something kind of petty and taboo (mature women's sexuality), and hindering women's real power?

I do like the "big girl panties" phrase because in it female power is cleaved from sex/beauty and put in a legitimate arena (i.e. gaining a political job takes qualifications and hard work, not thong underwear and blowjobs).

But, it bothers me that when a woman takes a powerful position, this news is often accompanied by media queries or jokes regarding if she's tough enough (the second sentence in the Washington Post article talks about Dana Perino sobbing), as well as references to her appearance and sexuality or asexuality that distract--and detract!--from her validity (the third sentence is, "Three hours later, her face freshly powdered and every strand of her neat bob in place, Perino crisply fielded questions at a televised briefing").

Hillary Clinton's media treatment during her presidential campaign was a case in point: She was picked on for showing weakness when she cried at the same time as she was put down for being too tough (the infamous "b*tch" label). Criticisms (and reactions to criticisms) of her "ugly" pantsuits and the size of her thighs garnered more attention than the content of her campaign speeches.

Repeatedly, women are depicted as emotional roller-coasters who vacillate between complete hysteria and total dictatorship, while the importance of their looks is played up. Doesn't all this negative and contradictory focus on gender maintain levels of sexism and prevent women from concentrating on the work they want to do? (Nobody was quoting cutesy lines in major newspaper articles--at least to my knowledge--about Obama putting his big boy undies on...) I'd say that in this climate, references to big-girl panties probably don't help to put the spotlight back on women's legitimacy and brilliance.

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