December 22, 2007
The Canberra Times

Withering assault: campaign drudgery takes toll on Hillary

So Hillary is an old hag. Finally the Vaseline has been wiped from the camera lens and the soft-focus setting – patented by Barbara Walters – has been switched off. What’s left is a 60-year- old presidential candidate looking like a weathered old wench.

In freezing weather last weekend, it was a frozen moment like no other. Clinton was snapped on the campaign trail in New Hampshire, by a photographer who said later he’d taken a number of shots that day in which Clinton looked ”radiant”. But the one that has sent a tornado through the Hillary for President campaign is a little stinker that found its way on to the Drudge Report website (famed for breaking the Monica Lewinsky scandal).

The photo Drudge posted, under the headline ”The Toll of a Campaign”, shows a weary and withered woman. Clinton has soft puffy skin, droopy cheeks, heavy eyelids and more wrinkles than an old nun’s stocking socks. Nanna’s old talcum powder seems to waft around her.

This week that most unflattering photo, in all its close-up, untouched glory, did the rounds of TV chat shows, newspapers, gossip blogs and radio talkback websites.

What’s more, the ”Old Hag routine”, as The New York Times’ Maureen Dowd put it, is turning out to be a major turn-on for the American media. It’s had commentators in a lather about the rights and wrongs of wrinkles. But not all wrinkles: just women’s wrinkles. Apparently they are very different from a man’s.

Key arbiter of what’s-what for women (self-nominated) is one of the United States’ leading shock- jocks, Rush Limbaugh. In true radio celebrity style, Limbaugh is a wrinkly fat walrus, with a balding ugly head that’s not even good for radio. Yet that doesn’t stop about 15million Americans hanging on his every word, every day. To put Limbaugh in context, he’s graced the cover of Time magazine, been hugged by President George W. Bush, calls abortion rights activists ”feminazis”, excuses the prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib as soldiers blowing off a little steam, and is famed for telling an African-American caller to ”take that bone out of your nose”. Get the picture? He’s the quintessential misogynist bully boy that the American public seems to love.

This week Limbaugh had an itch that needed a good scratch. It was caused by a growing irritation with powerful women. And clearly for frightened male thugs (think Bill Heffernan), the best way to fight the female onslaught, other than attack a woman’s weird personal life (which Limbaugh has done with endless lesbian jibes about Hillary Clinton), is to attack the way she looks. To do this, Limbaugh posed a question to his millions of listeners.

First, though, he backgrounded the question with a sermon about ”physical perfection” and ”the evolution of American culture”. His rant was indulgent, but also uncharacteristically illuminating. ”There is this thing in this country,” he said, ”as you age, America loses interest in you.” He went on to say that the US was ”obsessed with appearance”. And so the key question itching to get out, with the Drudge photo at the forefront of his and his listeners’ minds, was this: ”Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?”

Put even more bluntly, if possible, what Limbaugh wants his audience to consider is the real horror of women ageing, and how utterly unacceptable that is to a culture fixated on female perfection and youthful beauty. ”We know it because we see it,” he says. ”We have women starving themselves trying to get into size zero and size one clothes; makeovers, facials, plastic surgery, everyone in the world does Botox”, and on he goes. Limbaugh’s singular blame for all this superficiality is ”thanks to Hollywood and thanks to television”.

For a moment he pretends men are subjected to the same unattainable measures of perfection that women are judged by, but then he slips back into that deep, dark place where entrenched prejudices thrive. ”This is a sad unfortunate thing,” Limbaugh laments, ”but men ageing makes them look more authoritative, accomplished, distinguished. Sadly, it’s not that way for women.”

He may be a simpleton, but Limbaugh has touched gold with this stuff.

His question is horrid, but valid. In a country that lives life as if it were a movie, where everybody is a nobody, unless they’re on TV, and women are judged primarily by their appearance, Limbaugh’s question is pertinent. And Americans should try answering it, honestly.

Naturally, there has been an outpouring of fury over old daddy Limbaugh wading into the sexist, ageist muck. Plenty of celebrities have jumped to Clinton’s defence. ”She doesn’t look that bad,” one media powerbroker says, ”I’ve seen worse.” Others are hotly arguing the merit of the woman, above the issue of her age.

However, in all the noise it seems no one is hearing the high-pitched alarm that should be ringing. Can a nation such as the US really watch a female president get old? Will her widening hips, her drooping skin and puffy cheeks embarrass them? Disgust them? Or will she dutifully wage a war on ageing, and join a coalition of women who are willing to submit?

Virginia Haussegger is a Canberra journalist and director of the 50/50 by 2030 Foundation at the University of Canberra.

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