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Jan 27, 2006

Your Turn: Meet The Press


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Of all the political portraits I've looked at, there is one collection I keep returning back to.  It is a series called Changing The Face of Power: Women in the U.S. Senate by photojournalist Melina Mara.

The series is described this way on her website:

Melina Mara began photographing the 13 women senators in 2001 and continued the project as their number grew to 14 in 2003.  In focused bursts, Mara traveled the country to document this defining period in the history of U.S. politics.  Whether behind the scenes or before mikes and lights -- at a time when photographic access to national politicians is increasingly controlled -- Mara persuaded a majority of the senators and their staffs to allow her to document the unprecedented role of women in the Senate.

Besides the unusual access that was afforded and the dimension of seeing these women through a woman's eyes, I think the images are particularly enhanced by the way they are situated in time.

I invite your interpretation and analysis of this February '03 shot, which is one of my favorites.  To help out a bit, I'm also providing you with the caption:

First-term Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) pauses outside a hearing room to take questions from reporters in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill. Cantwell, a high-tech millionaire, worked as a marketing executive of Real Networks, a Seattle Internet audio software company, before running for her Senate seat. Cantwell previously served in the Washington state House from 1987 to 1992 and won election to the U.S. House in 1993 but was defeated for re-election in 1994.

For more on Melina Mara and this collection, see:Melina Mara website. Digital Journalist feature on Women In The Senate including video clips with Melina Mara here. To purchase prints or posters, contact:

(image: Melina Mara.  February 2003.  Washington, D.C.


Why are her legs crossed? Does she have to pee real bad and these guys just stopped her on the way to the bathroom? That's what this picture says to me. I also wonder when women will be permitted to wear trousers in Congress. Is there a Kate Hepburn among them?

I don't know if someone will say this is sexist, but just looking at the photo, without knowing who these people were, I'd say she was being sort of feminine and flirty. (Or I guess she might have to pee...)

Is this typical body language - the men planted with their feet apart, while the woman isn't staking out any territory?

Stella, I always see pictures of Hillary Clinton in pants. Doesn't she wear them in the Senate?

This picture reminds me of how few women we have in the senate. One lone woman, surrounded by men. Her expensive shoes stand out against the comparitively sensible shoes of her peers. Their legs are substantive while hers are thin and almost frail in comparision.

When are we going to have equal representation of women?

Okay . . . there is undeniably something sexual at work with this imagery. I hope I don't offend in my attempt to be honest.

First, the Senator's crossed feet. The mind imagines the parts of the leg and body left out of the picture. Her posture says she has closed herself off, while exposing more of herself than anyone else in the photo (those undeniably female legs).

Is it because contemporary fashion dictates that even powerful women must show some calf? I'm struck with the dichotomy: I'm a powerful woman, yes, but still a woman in a male's domain. I'm protecting myself, closing myself off as I have to wear a skirt.

The second thing is the men's pants and their position relative to the Senator. There are three sets of legs in black or blue suits. They are more removed than the less formal tan pants. The kacky guy is within the Senator's personal space. Does the semi-formal uniform grant access, or presume it? Are less formal, less powerful, more approachable than the traditional power brokers?

Until I read the caption, I thought the three dark clad legs were fellow Senators or staff. And the thought that struck me, with the tan pants inside the Senator's personal space, the crossed protective legs, the exposed calves, the three suits slightly removed was: voyuers?

Is the estabishment slightly puriently intrigued by the new phenomenon of an attractive woman in power? By the access taken/granted by the semi-formal fella? Is the message here one of attraction/repulsion by both the Senator and the people in her profession? And why?

An intriguing story there. Lots to think about.

Why does this picture put me in mind of Audrey Hepburn and "Breakfast at Tiffany's"? Is it the 60s vamp to the shoes with their pointy toes and rhinestone buckles? The crossed ankles? Of course, the crossed ankles could be fatique or maintaining her balance as she stands in heels.

It is incongruous to realize that these feet belong to a "high-tech millionaire" and marketing exec as she holds court in the US Senate halls of power. Still everyone is giving her space--the marble floor tile acts like a fence.

Other pictures suggest that she is a small, thin woman. She is attractive because she is carefully groomed. She wears heels to give herself an inch or two, and dresses in skirts to heighten the contrast between her and the men. If she were to dress man-style in pants, she would be just a short, frail, girly guy.

She narrowly won her seat in 2000, by ~2000 votes out of 2.5 million cast. The pictures suggest to me that she is not yet secure in her authority. She is using props.

Gorgious legs, fetish shoes, BUT crossed legs are nixing the idea of a hook-up, while showing that she's on her toes enough to stand crosslegged and answer questions. As someone who was around for the first bra-burnings, I'm in awe of this generation of women.

I tried standing in a pair of high heels in the same way as the woman in the picture does. In order not to fall flat on my face, the crossed-over leg could not be completely on the heel had to be raised slightly off the floor. The position is uncomfortable and cannot be maintained for very long.

So, for me, the interesting part of this picture is that the men are standing, feet apart, in a very solid, braced standing position. The woman however, is standing in an uncomfortable and highly unstable position.

I take one look at this photo and the first thing I see is a woman uncomfortable in her surroundings. Her legs have less substance then the three males. Because they are crossed it says to me that she is scared. I can just imagine her like a child who is about to be yelled at. They cross and uncross their legs, they hang their head, and they don't look directly at the person talking to them. Notice how her feet are not directly pointed at any of the men.

Then I read the caption and everything changed. Instead of the stance indicating fright, it becomes flirty. By crossing her legs (and perhaps uncrossing them -thankfully not a la Sharon Stone) she draws attention to them. By not facing one man directly she is showing that she is open to all of them. And the fact that the men are reporters as another level. She outranks them and draws them in not just with her title but with her actions as well.

What struck me immediately are the Senator's shoes. In rural life up here in the sticks, we don't see much of that.

And that ties in to Lisa's excellent question: "When are we going to have equal representation of women?"

Look at the clothing. Senator Cantwell is in an inherently unstable position when she wears shoes like that. You sure don't see many competitive, agressive men wearing high-heeled pointy shoes.

Why is she showing calf? How does she sit down in a room with a short skirt like that?

Does her clothing put her at an advantage? Sure, in some sexual way. Is that a way to achieve power? At the same time her clothing puts her at a disadvantage in so many other ways. Is that a way to achieve power?

A few days ago many of us made rude remarks about Cheney's footwear because it was so inappropriate. My take is that the Senator's footwear is even more absurd, although it is entirely appropriate.

That's what happens when you live up here in the snow and mud; for better or worse, it affects your perspective.

Like ummabdulla, my first impression was she was flirting at a cocktail party. Otherwise, standing legs crossed definitely puts one off balance. Even her shoes are flirty with those fancy buckles/clips.

Didn't consciously think about personal spaces until I read Charles' comment. If those tiles are 12" square, his foot is only about 6" from hers. No wonder she strikes a defensive posture. Maybe it's not flirty after all. And Meghan's point about her toes not pointing at any of the men, is that an subconscious defense?

Just because the photographer is a woman does not mean she is without editorial bias. I looked at several of the photographs on her site in this series and I thought they were remarkable for showing women senators as small and apparently defenseless (ineffectual?). They were frequently dwarfed by large men in the foreground or, failing that, huge furniture, or in one case, 'huge' photos of her children. I tried to view Mara's commercial or editorial photos, for comparison, but they were not available.

Which leaves the question, what point is Mara trying to make with this series? That women senators lack authority? That they are helpless in the face of all this raw male power? That the only weapons they have are helpless flirtations and huge furniture?

I should have looked at the whole photo-series before. Interesting!

Your observation that "just because the photographer is a woman does not mean she is without editorial bias" is excellent. It seemed to me, reviewing the series, that the Republican candidates were portrayed in much more powerful ways than the Democratic ones. It is the Democratic Senators that are photographed dwarfed by desks or fellow senators, framed in by children, shut in bathrooms or elevators or fragmented into body parts. The Republican Senators (in general) are photographed as powerful, casting a big shadow, isolated or surrounded by space. But perhaps it is just my editorial bias that Mara is favoring Republicans?

Sadly, sex sells. Period.

As a woman (despite what you may infer from my first name), I say Senator Cantwell is NOT off balance, is NOT the least bit protective of or nervous about her territory. She learned quite well how to deal with high-powered males/authority figures within the tech-industry, and she obviously mastered the skill; witness her millionnaire status.

I see her as the power point in this picture, and she especially has hapless khaki-pants-guy in her grip.

That said, I am personally uncomfortable with any woman who would use her inherent sexual allure (a beautiful body that looks good in high-dollar clothes and sexy shoes) in order to gain status and power in the political arena.

What's wrong with a brilliant mind inside an aging, tit-sagging, big-ankled, menopausal female body? A woman who is so comfortable with herself that she dares to throw off her bra, wear elastic-waist pants and Birks, and refuse to color her gray hair?

Barbara Jordan, bless her heart, continues to come to mind as I type this.

Reviewing the pictures I go with Cactus, the photographer has a 20 second clip in which she says she has "a shoe fetish" wonders about the crossed legs but thinks the boots are stylish.
These booties look to me like a 20th century fashion(uncomfortable) statement from the clothing style of the Puritans.
Moral of the story, if your wealthy adopt the appearance of frugality/simplicity of the founding folks, I should cut back on watching PBS/ documentaries, or hate/enjoy this photographers particular fetish.

To reply to Kevin, I was referring to the photo ONLY when I suggested off-balance, etc. It could have just been a split second in her changing positions, but THAT was the moment the photographer caught and chose to publish. Obviously I realize that ANY woman who makes it that far has to be tough as well as intelligent. My comments were aimed more at the choices made by the photographer. That was why I was disappointed not to be able to view her other work, to see what her 'commercial' photos were like.

But I still hold out about defensive posture, in that khaki-pants-guy IS too close. We Americans have a certain space in which we are comfortable (as opposed to, say, the Italians - whose 'space' is much smaller) and if someone gets too close, we back off, which may not have been an option Cantwell was willing to choose.

I DO agree about Barbara Jordan, who was one of my heroines.

PTate's comment about republican vs. democratic senators was interesting, too. I'm going to have to go back and look at the portfolio again. Thanks

CACTUS regarding 'personal space' ( perhaps the BAG or others might comment on this subject ) Years ago I attended a 10 day Middle Management course comprised equally of men and women (total 50- business, social worker, educators etc backgrounds)Besides theory there was lots of experiential stuff. One particular exercise ( purpose unknown ) was to pick a partner of the opposite sex and try to sell them a car or whatever, this was repeated 4/5 times. After an hour the consensus was that woman moved closer to men and in the overwhelming number of cases men stepped back. (we also discussed Italians and other cultures when evaluating this experiment)
Lesson to woman managers was to be aware that this behavior might be interpreted as pushy aggressive etc.
We were all more or less WASP's.
In semi formal social settings of strangers I still often observe this behavior. ( Reporters of course must be considered an exception as they prefer to be in your face )
Thanks to PTate's observation I'll need to have another go as well.
I also prefer grey hair and Birks.

Yeah, I'll have to admit my 1st thought was "nice F-me pumps" and glad to see "kankles" were not in them (i.e.thick ankles). Sometimes a cigar is NOT just a cigar. I see flirty and comfortable rather than at a disadvatage.

Still, female representation should be higher if not actually alloted 50% of the slots.

Welll....since Stella immediately broached the subject, the first thought I had was: 'she has to go to the bathroom.' The next: 'it's sexist, awfully sexist. Men with legs covered, woman without.'

The crossing of her legs isn't necessarily about coyness either; it's about not being vulnerable, open or intimate (as in being familiar rather than being stand-offish).

The woman's shoes are 1,000 times classier than the men's. The men's shoes are coma-inducingly dull. If the photographer has a thing for shoes, she's got to have been amazed (and thrilled) at this juxtaposition of personal styles.

I'm not sure the leg issue is a negative for the photographer.

Cactus says, "Which leaves the question, what point is Mara trying to make with this series? That women senators lack authority? That they are helpless in the face of all this raw male power?" At first I was uncomfortable with these portrayals too. But finally I realized that *I'm* the one with a preconceived idea of how I want the women and the photographs of them to look.

If we see the women senators as diminished and wish they were depicted more powerfully, it means we accept the all-white-male-defined image of power and think the women should fit themselves into it better. Why aren't we happy to see the senators with their children? Why isn't the senator-child photo a "power" image? Why do we accept the picture of all those white men who seem to have no children? I think the photographer may be turning the question back on us: When are *we* going to adapt *our* notions of power to reflect real life?

I don't think that the photographer agrees that power truly lies in these silly dark-paneled rooms populated with dark-suited oafs and clods. Notice that in almost every shot, the woman is revealed by a pinpoint of light — she is bright and alive and surrounded by dark and leaden and sometimes even outright menacing uniformity. Each may be nearly swallowed up by these surroundings, but she still stands out. What a gender-balanced senate will ultimately look like is still unclear, so the photographer does not set any iconic precedents. She's giving these women room to define themselves. Now I love these photos and can see the humor in them as well.

Because it's rare to see a "dated" image on the site, I was wondering in advance how much the comments might account for the passage of time. Remember, the photographer started following these Senators five years ago. One questions it raises is whether she could have gotten this same shot today. In the video clip that accompanies this image on Digital Journalist, Ms. Mara assumes that the crossed legs reflected a sense of tension. Of course, a new Senator is going to be nervous on the job. On the other hand, I'm wondering if, over the three to five year time period, whether there has been a collective increase in sense of confidence among women in the Senate. Of course, changes in fashion conventions (either related or unrelated to women in power roles) would probably account for differences also.

Cactus, I think the tiles are at least 18" square, not 12" (given the length of the adult's shoes), but when you look at the way her right leg has been swung in front of her left, it looks like in her open footed stance, she's actually standing nearer the guy in the dark pants (I don't think any of the men in this picture are wearing a suit, or even creased pants). I'm assuming that she got into this position after these people were arranged, because I can't imagine standing in such an awkward position while people assembled around me, which means she probably moved into khaki-pants' bubble, rather than the other way around, making me think she's using her flirtly feminine wiles on men whose clothing from the knees down shows they are inferior to her in position. The general impression I get from most posters is that resorting to such tricks is a mark of weakness, and I admit that when I looked at this series of photos, my personal reaction was most favorable to the images of the Republican women - showing decisive natures in the face of masculine competition and commanding presences in dramatic settings. But I think that would misread what is happening in this photo. I think she is completely in command of this meeting, and her cross-legged stance (surely a transitional position during the course of this meeting) shows me she's probably confidently working this group of guys. The R's image folks make even the R women project strength, while the D's either haven't thought of this, or somehow think that traditional reliance on outward symbols of power (height, mass, having others defer to you, resolute expressions, suits) isn't as important as having thoughtful positions on policy points.

Those are "fuck me" shoes. The crossed feet say "No, really, fuck me!"

The crossed feet say, "I've already been fucked, thank you."

You people just blow my mind. That's what makes this site so exciting. jtfromBC, your comment about space was great. I'm going to have to do a little testing on that one. I remember hearing about a poll done on people checking out library books and what they thought of the service. If the librarian just slightly touched their hand or arm when handing them back the book, the impression they had was higher. I consciously do that in certain situations, now I'll start watching to see if men back off.

I did go back and survey the portfolio. Turns out most of the photos are of democrats, but probably because there are more democratic women in the senate. However, I did note some slight bias to the positive in republican women. With the dems, it was evenly divided between negative and neutral, with a few less positive. By neutral, I mean such as the bathroom scene which, to me, seemed to be just a straight-on shot. What I noticed most about that one was it looks like every employee's bathroom I'd been in. Rather disappointing. I also noticed that it seemed fairly evenly that the light was rather noir-ish.

rtbag's comment about what WE read into the photos, I wonder if that is the superficial first impression, i.e., 'looks like she has to pee' or 'why is she wearing f-me shoes?' I still think that deeper critical analysis shows the bias or psychology or background of the photographer. I once had a teacher who said that every photo we take is an autobiography. And she proved it to the entire workshop to our amazement.

The crossed feet say, "Did I or didn't I" ?

I think having such a photo series is sexist. Why can't we let women be women and be in power and not draw attention to it as if it was some amazing thing. It's a normal thing. It's how things should be.

This type of framing of women in power is stereotypical. The photo didn't have to be this sexy. It's stupid. Even with a woman behind the camera we can't get away from the male dominated view of women through the lense.

I'd like to add: why not take sexy photos of the 85 men? Woot!

It seems to me that it is important to have such a photo series, because women are woefully under-represented in the Congress. And because women are different than men.

For instance, why do women wear shoes such as those attached to Senator Cantwell?

Well, since I didn't know, today I wore a nice pair of open-toed high heels to work, with a short purply skirt. Quite a reaction: nobody liked my hairy legs and folks were really put off by the clashing colors.

Nah, just kidding, most men really don't where those kinds of clothes. So then, you got to wonder why. Or why women do.

funny how many people comment on the stance -- I personally stand this way all the time (in elevators, when standing around with people, etc), but it's certainly a short-term position, as not as stable as legs apart and under your shoulders, say. however, women aren't expected to stand squarely, and the ankles-together position that is very commonly adopted isn't necessarily comfortable for long stretches either without a shift, of which this variant is one likely option. but, of course, there's still some reason why the photographer chose this moment to shoot, or this shot to feature. it does give a certain sensibility.

as for the shoes, they'd look less "flirtatious" when you saw them combined with the business suit-type dress of the average congresswoman; the buckles would match the clasp of a businesslike pearl necklace, dressy suit buttons, or metallic earrings. meh. hard to get around the effect of the absent hemline, though -- bare legs are just a different beast than those in pants. interesting that the pantsuit has made so little headway among women in the public eye; it would make a lot of sitting issues go away...

ACM, "It would make a lot of sitting issues go away" true but much to practical..don't suggest that to the long leggedly beasties on CNN.
I often go a bit further to the one legged duck stance but that might be a bit precarious with stilt shoes.

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