Amid images of rubble and shell shocked residents, cars in flames and pieces of debris smouldering in the background, Vogue magazine published their article on Asma al-Assad laced between advertisements for designer bags, high gloss nail varnish, and exclusive items (price available upon request 417-555-5555). It made me wonder: is this what first ladies have come to? Mannequins of advertisement for fashion and a distraction from the devastation and political strife that paints their backdrop?
I read Vogue like I window shop, I’m attracted to shiny things and leather goods, none of which I can afford but like to examine for their beauty for the art they represent. Then before I lose myself completely and I feel my face get closer to the glossy pages of the magazine or the glass windows of designer row, I let myself remember what’s really going on in the world. How many villages could be saved by spending $500 on digging wells instead of a coin purse; how many children could go to school with $4,000 instead of sparkly heels; and how many prisoners could access fair trials with skilled attorneys for $100,000 instead of a couture dress.
I guess that’s what magazines like Vogue try to do, with their little political feature pieces and nods to empowered women. However, the fact remains, they slipped on this one just a little. Asma al-Assad is the wife of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. A beautiful woman, no doubt, who does little to comment on her husband’s (ir)responsibilities of running a country. Vogue outlined a delicate portrait of her from her democratic upbringing to her love for fine fashion, but did little to make mention of her politics or perspectives on the events in the Middle East and particularly in Syria.
This took me to thinking about what popular culture has done to women with husbands in power. Instead of being viewed as independent political thinkers, with values, and opinions on their nation they are idealized as mannequins and models of fashion- something “more relatable” for the greater female population, if you will. Thinking of the American First-Lady Michelle Obama, more articles are written on her sleeveless floral dresses than her work with children’s healthcare and education. Over to the French First-Lady Carla Bruni, more is written on her plastic surgery and flawless figure than her work with women’s charities. Historically, Eva Peron, Argentina’s First-Lady (1946-1952) was paraded as a model in her elegant attire for even the most modest of tasks.
Even women who have made it to greater positions of power than their romantic partners have been analyzed in depth for their wardrobe and makeup sense rather than their political motivations by these same women’s magazines. Hilary Clinton’s feature in Marie Claire (May 2012) began with an allude to shoes- her politics is somewhat more difficult to separate from her person, but even still the article goes on to discuss her change in wardrobe from the Clinton Administration to how she wears her hair. During Benazir Bhutto’s short time in the political sphere, she was consistently complimented by magazines for her flawless complexion and simple but elegant dress sense.
All these women had causes, they had charities they work tirelessly with, they write and speak on the needs of the people- but all this is a shadow to their gowns, shoes, and jewels they wear to state functions or jeans and trainers they wear to walk the family dog. It is an unfortunate thing that a woman’s politics and perspectives are first judged by her wardrobe choices, especially when it would be unimaginable to do the same to a man. Today with the European economy in the state that it’s in, a last concern should be if Carla is wearing heels or flats; with Syria in a state of civil unrest, Asma’s flavour for designer vases should be poignant dismay not interest; with the American economy slowly teetering into the next election, Michelle should be asked questions on her continued work with children’s charities not her favourite American designer.
Simultaneously, we have scorned successful women like Margaret Thatcher and Angela Merkel to gritty newspapers and pithy articles in the Economist rather than give them conscious thought and verse in these same magazines. What does this say about the female readers of these magazines, that they have a disinterest in actual world politics, or would rather use these magazines as a distraction from their daily grueling lives sat behind newspapers, news stories, and life’s ‘serious matters’? Thatcher and Merkel may not be the most haute couture but their politics are, and that deserves to be written next to priceless designer scarves.
We as a culture have pushed even the most respectable and representative women to porcelain dolls to be admired from afar, mimicked in their pomp and splendor, but never asked an opinion lest they speak and shed their beauty.
Had Vogue considered Asma’s politics and her role alongside her husband’s career, they may not have published the article. If they had looked behind her porcelain skin and asked her thoughts on the Arab Spring and the conflicts in the Middle East, they may have been able to find her true secret to beautiful skin- as we all know, a good night’s rest, stress release activities, and a healthy diet- which I can’t imagine Syria, in its current state, producing this most conducive environment.