By Claire Zillman
March 20, 2017

German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump on Friday was defined by two telling moments, both captured in gif-perfect video snippets. In one clip from their joint press conference, Merkel reacts with an overtly bemused expression to Trump’s claim that he is being wiretapped by his predecessor. In the other, during a photo op in the White House, Trump ignores Merkel when she leans over and asks, “Do you want to have a handshake?” Receiving no reply, the chancellor simply looks up and smiles at reporters.

The visit highlighted the stark contrast between the leadership styles of the two world leaders, and the resulting commentary has provided a worrying reminder of how women in power are too often portrayed. “Mrs. Merkel was every inch the cool, reserved physicist-by-training, at moments giving her American host the icy stare of a Mother Superior told a dirty joke,” The Economist wrote of the incident. Comparing Merkel, the leader of Europe’s largest economy and outspoken defender of liberal democracy, to the head of a convent, chaste and devout, is a regrettable choice. But as Cambridge classicist Mary Beard writes in a recent London Review of Books essay on women in power, the clichéd comparison is a symptom of the fact that “we have no template for what a powerful woman looks like, except that she looks rather like a man.”

“The regulation trouser suits, or at least the trousers, worn by so many Western female political leaders, from Merkel to [Hillary] Clinton, may be convenient and practical; they may be a signal of the refusal to become a clothes horse…but they’re also a simple tactic—like lowering the timbre of the voice—to make the female appear more male, to fit the part of power,” Beard writes. “If we go back to the beginnings of Western history we find a radical separation—real, cultural, and imaginary—between women and power.” Merkel and Clinton’s visages are often superimposed upon Caravaggio’s Medusa, she points out; U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff have also been compared to the Greek symbol of monstrous female power.

Yet efforts to push back against harmful portrayals and assumptions about women in power are undoubtedly on the rise. Take, for instance, the New Zealand parody of the ‘BBC Dad’ incident, which imagines how a female political expert might have reacted if her children barged in on an on-air interview. While expertly fielding questions about a crisis in South Korea, she feeds her children, cleans a toilet, and diffuses a bomb. The satirical clip is an excellent example of how, as Beard writes, “You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.”

Linda Kinstler, in for Claire



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