Thursday, February 10, 2011

Political "Scandal" Du Jour--Elected Official Often Have a Past

I will admit, until today I had never hear of Tennessee State Rep. Julia Hurley and normally wouldn't give a toss about a freshman, 29-year-old state legislator in a state where I don't live and so far as I know, probably won't live anytime soon. But apparently, there is a brouhaha because she once worked at Hooter's. Ohh-the horror!.

Now, I find this particularly funny because about a month and a half ago, I posted a bit on the National Organization for Women's new crusade against Hooters. Hooters has built a great business on not particularly great food, not great beer and a sexy wait staff of beautiful women in tight t-shirts, short orange shorts and panty-hose.  It is a business built in part on attractive, sexy women.  Rep. Julia Hurley used to be one of those women and unlike most politicans, she is not afraid to say that she worked there.  As most people know by now Hurley worked at Hooters and has been profiled in the company's in-house magazine in which Hurley credits her time as a server at the restaurant chain for helping her find the self-confidence to move forward with her life, in light of being a young single mother. Hurley has since left Hooters and started her own company and now run for office, defeating a nine-term incumbent in the Volunteer State.

The debate seems to be that Hurley appears to take pride in her past and instead of trying to run away from her past, she embraces her past or at least is not trying to hide it. As writer Sarah Rufca said:

The latest female politician to earn the scorn of the Internet for violating these rules is Julia Hurley, a first-term state representative in Tennessee. Hurley's crime is two-fold — having worked in her youth at a Hooter's restaurant and having the gall to not completely disown such a scandalous past, and instead try to inspire other Hooters girls with her success.

So here we have a politician, who like lots people when they were young, waited tables to make ends meet.  So what makes Hurley any different, other than she worked at Hooters and then dared to run for office with Hooters Girl on her resume?  The scorn being heaped upon her for not hiding or denouncing her past seems to be related to her being a, gasp, Republican!.   Would this outcry be different if Hurley were a Democrat?  I tend to think not because there is a perverse thrill that seems to capture the media's attention when it turns out that an attractive young Republican woman turns out to have a past.  This process, what Rufca calls "slut shaming" happens immediately when a young attractive woman politician is NOT a Democrat.  Would the media give a toss if Hurley were a Democrat?  That is the question.

Rufca points out a couple of rules that she has learned about being female, single, attractive, a mother and a former model and Hooters girl who is interested in politics--don't do it.   In fact, if you are a woman, here are the rules you  need to know about running for office:

1. Don't be too qualified, serious or ugly or everyone will call you a bitch (or maybe a lesbian) and complain that your shrill voice reminds people of their nagging wives and mothers.

2. Don't be too young, too pretty or too blonde or no one will take you seriously.

3. Don't run if you're single, because how can you succeed in office if you can't even succeed at getting a husband?!

4. Don't run if your husband has ever done anything wrong (like cheat on you) because that is a stain on your character.

5. Don't run if you have non-grownup children, because that makes you a bad mother.

6. Don't run if there's any evidence that you have ever had or desire to have a sex life or might allow yourself to be a sexual being — except for the purpose of having a brood of children, of course.

As the father of two young girls, who I very much want to be happy, successful and assertive, this kind of attention is troubling. I don't want my daughters in their older, more mature lives to fear their past.  This "slut shaming" is such that if my daughters ever want to be a political leader, it would seem that they can't have a past at all. The slut shaming seems to cry out for their entry into a convent only to emerge when they are old enough to run for office. Of course, that won't work either because they will be called Catholic Zealots and therefore unable to hold office lest they be the handmaidens of the Pope.

But is it realistic to believe and expect our leaders, in or out of politics, Republican or Democrat, male or female, young or old, to have nothing in their past?  Can we really expect leaders to be a blank slate arriving on the scene as if fully formed?  But it is not just that Julia Hurley has a past, it is that her past includes a stint in a sexualized atmosphere.  This stint at Hooters does not make Hurley a slut nor does it necessarily imply that she was promiscuous although that seems to be the intention of some people bent on shaming her.  I obviously don't know Hurley's past, but for a woman at her age, it is not unreasonable to believe she has a sexual past (and with a child we know she had sex at least once).  I am not suggesting that Hurley has attempted to sexualize herself, but those who are attempting to shame her seem bent on sexualizing her.

It seems to me that we as a nation have a hard time accepting that people can be good at some aspect of their life and still have other facets to their life--including a sex life.  We don't need to sexualize them and just because that person chooses to sexualize themselves (by choice) it doesn't make them a bad person or means they have sold out the other aspects of their life.

I have commented in the past about women like Amanda Beard, a woman who has been amazingly successful in her chosen field of swimming, who chose to appear nude in Playboy. I questioned why it was such a bad thing for either Beard, swimming or women. In another post about female athletes and the sexualization of female athletes, I noted:

What we forget, often times, when thinking about female athletes, particularly those like Beard, [race car driver Danica] Patrick, [Anna] Kournikova and others who are at least adults, is that these women, in addition to being athletes are themselves sexual beings. One presumes they have and in some cases we know, that they have romantic and presumably sexual relationships. These women are not nuns who wait in a convent until it is time to compete and retreat to the cloistered halls after the competition. If these women choose to express their sexuality in teh pages of Playboy or FHM or any other magazine, why should we as a society get our collective underwear in a twist?

We don't put the same standards upon men? Male athletes are assumed to be sexual creatures and no one questions their attendance at a strip club. But for women athletes to express a sexuality, that becomes something to be feared or criticized. And men who partake in the celebration of the female form in the shape of an athlete in a magazine are some how misogynistic for their enjoyment.

Now, in addition to the sexualization of female athletes, we have a new concern about the sexualization of female politicians. Julia Hurley or Sarah Palin or any other attractive female politician should not have to worry about the fact that they have a past where, potentially, they engaged in sexual behavior outside of having children or even (horrors) outside of wedlock. They should not have their past dragged out before the public and held up as something bad.  Hurley is not showing upon the floor of the Tennessee State House in her Hooters uniform, but we shouldn't dimiss her simply because she is attractive.

Who among us over the age of 18 doesn't have a past? I personally know doctors, lawyers, accountant, teachers and academics who have a past that included drinking beer from a oversizes glass fish, being known as a "toxic twin" for their drinking exploits, had multiple sexual partners and engaged in some behavior that was less than publicly approved. Its doesn't make them a lesser person, unskilled doctor, lawyers, accountant, teacher, academic or any other professional. It makes them human.

Our politicians are humans, they have a past. Instead of scandalizing the past, we should acknowledge that they have a past, from which we hoped they, like Hurley, learned lessons. I like the fact that Hurley has not chosen to hide behind a defense of "I was desperate, poor, unskilled and a single mother." She may have been all of those things at the time, but she has made no excuse or attempted to hide for her past. Years later she says she has taken lessons from her experience that made her who she is today. That is what leadership is about.

Does Hurley have a long career as a political leader ahead of her? Who knows, but I do know this: the sooner we as a public and a media get past the fact that our political leaders have a past, have made mistakes and are human beings, with (usually) a sexual past, the better off we as a country are going to be.

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