The Right to Bare Arms

Olivia Chow: Sleeveless in all Seasons

Olivia Chow is a New Democratic Member of Parliament (for the riding of Trinity-Spadina), a former Toronto city counsellor and the wife of NDP leader Jack Layton. What she is not is a runway model or a trend-setting red carpet starlet. So I was surprised when Chow’s fashion choices were the focus of Joanna Smith’s ‘Party Favours’ column in The Toronto Star.

The couple were being interviewed by Alex Pearson for the Sun News Network when Chow took off her jacket during a commercial break, exposing her bare arms. Or, as Smith teasingly writes, Chow decided to “show a little skin.” Pearson drew attention to the suddenly exposed flesh by bringing up a since-retracted tweet (those are the most newsworthy) from Maclean’s magazine which mocked the female correspondents on Sun News for their supposedly scandalous outfits, dubbing the network “Skank News.”

Pearson asked what Chow, as a woman, thought about comments like these. “You are in the spotlight and apparently if you, I guess present yourself like this… Are you a ‘skank’ if you dress like this?”

“Hang on a minute,” interrupted Layton. “This is my Member of Parliament!”

Ignoring the obvious sexism of asking a politician if her outfit makes her a ‘skank’ (even if done in a joking way, when did this become appropriate?) let’s ponder Smith’s motivation in writing about the phantom sleeves. We are not prissy Victorians who faint at an exposed elbow. Nobody in Canada is shocked by a sleeveless top. So why dedicate a piece to such a non-scandal, especially when the election campaign is entering the pivotal final stretch?

The story most resembles the faux-kerfuffle that gets kicked up every time First Lady Michelle Obama shows off her arms in one of her floral shifts, but it also brings to mind the double-edged sword of former MP Belinda Stronach’s prettiness, Republican Vice-Presidential nominee Sarah Palin’s expensive clothing bills being flaunted in front of the public like dirty laundry, and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s ongoing troubled relationship with fashion. She’s posed for the cover of Vogue but bristles at the media’s obsession with her hair and her pantsuits. When asked about her favourite designers, Clinton once answered, “Would you ever ask a man that question?”

It could be that Smith had nothing else to write about. It could also be that the piece was meant to inject some tongue-in-cheek humour into the election campaign. But if that’s the case, why must it be about something which objectifies a political power player in a way a man never would be? Sure, we compare the male party leaders’ ties, but not in a way that significantly demeans them or their legitimacy to govern. The difference is that being clothing-conscious is a trait still identified with the feminine, and femininity has traditionally been viewed as the antithesis to assertive, masculine leadership.

When we obsess about female politicians’ suits, skirts or pearls, we underline that they are female politicians. But in order to get a seat at the table they need to be accepted as, simply, politicians.

In her own case, Chow claimed that she took off her jacket deliberately to make a point about female representation. “This whole emphasis on peoples’ appearance rather than looking at what we believe in, what we stand for — no wonder the House of Commons only has 22 per cent female MPs.”

I hope that Green Party leader Elizabeth May doesn’t dare expose an ankle, so maybe Smith can go back to covering actual news.

- Max Mosher

9 thoughts on “The Right to Bare Arms

  1. Max, this is all kinds of wonderful. It’s so frustrating that women in power have to walk this tightrope, it seems like they are chastised no matter what their relationship with fashion is. Those who fit into the narrow category of ‘traditional’ standards of feminine dress and beauty are not taken seriously, while those who aim to position themselves outside of this realm are criticized by the same media for being too ‘masculine.’
    Also, was anyone else a bit perturbed with Layton’s “This is my member of Parliament!” statement?

  2. Sometimes, I wonder, How far, really, have we come?
    I am perplexed that so-called media proponents have nothing better to do than to make comments that have nothing to do with the actual person’s role and contribution.
    While it might be a media person’s thrill to throw an uncomplimentary term towards a politician in a hypothetical question, maybe the interviewer could think twice to ask a more appropriate question:
    What are the politician’s views on the issues?

  3. Tis a sad that a women can’t be beautiful and powerful. At least in some peoples minds. Olivia Chow is so wonderful, ready with an honest and sincere smile. (She even showed up at SODOM this month, genuinely happy to see people being themselves.)

    Personally her and Jack are wonderful people, and when it comes to the question of Governance, I don’t think there are better people in Parliament who will honestly and respectfully lead a country into the future.

  4. Thank you for writing this Max, I think as a society we really need to figure out how to deal with dress and women in politics. It always, always comes up, and its beginning to get ridiculous. I don’t have an answer, but I am happy that wornettes are critically engaging with the subject matter.

  5. Ya this is ridiculous. I think it’s an americanism sinking in over here to make any sort of issue about a woman’s arms in particular. Of course assessment of how women present themselves and if it is “skanky” is wrong and it is everywhere. It is a topic worthy of discussion, as in the discussion about the discussion, not as in what is ok or not ok to wear, but… to then be asking a woman parliament member her opinions on this does seem like an insulting thing to bring up. Layton was so right to interrupt. I just can not believe this is all still going on.

    Funny thing is, I don’t think I have ever seen any Canadian male politicians arms… I think we have seem some pics of foreign government men a bit more exposed. Bush exercising (he was ridiculed, I think he also kept falling over or something). Obama exercising (he was found cool), Obama swimming (he was found hot). Putin swimming (he was found hot). But there never is that sexual slur attached to them showing their bodies. Though people do asses the shape they are in.

    Didn’t Kim Campbell get naked for a photo? Though not fully exposed. I don’t remember any remarks about it but there must have been something said in whatever direction.

    Found it! It’s safe for work completely and maybe it was before she was Prime Minister and not after

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