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Sexy politics

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When women earned an unprecedented number of seats in the June 2010 Czech parliamentary elections, the resulting victory stirred up an unexpected discourse on sex and politics. As a celebratory measure the Věci veřejné (VV) (Public Affairs party) created a pin-up calendar featuring its newest female members in scantily-clad outfits and provocative poses. The charity calendar was endorsed by its female politicians. Although the calendar did receive criticism from some Czech women who believe that showing off nice legs in alluring poses wasn’t going to award more power to women, most of the country didn’t really see the item as anything special.

Elsewhere in the world, however, the new “racy” Czech brand of feminism was drawing an unusual amount of attention. In The Wall Street Journal’s coverage of the issue, the calendar was seen as a “sign of the times here.” The subheading of the journal’s article suggested that the newest parliamentary members “push boundaries of taste,” which brings to mind the question of whose standard is being used to evaluate the notion of “taste.” Czech women seem to desire to be feminine and sexy, but also to gain more influential roles in government and politics. This raises the question of what feminism looks like in today’s post-Communist Czech Republic.

Despite the stir internationally, the buzz about sexy Czech politicians didn’t register on my own horizons until last week when my mother, an ever-faithful reporter on Czech related news in the US, stuck The Wall Street Journal article with pictures from the calendar in the mail. I had to smile when I saw the languid poses of the new Czech politicians, many of whom are mothers, as well as successful working professionals. If a similar calendar were to show up post-election in the US, I’m pretty sure it would be met with a negative backlash, far stronger than the few critical comments the VV calendar received here. I’m not sure the politicians counted on making headlines as sex symbols, but they certainly didn’t seem to mind showing the world their bodies. Talking with my Czech girlfriends, no one seemed bothered by the politicians appearing in a racy calendar. Although they did wonder if flaunting a new politician’s sex appeal would do anything to help initiate political change.

Admittedly, the Czech Republic has a relationship with sex and sensuality that makes my ingrained American sensibilities blush. From my experience, Czech women dress with the intention to come across as both sexy and well-put together. Their attitude toward tight-fitting pants, low-cut tops and high-heeled shoes (even in snow) make my own wardrobe seem blasé and old-fashioned. I admit I still do a double-take when I see our Czech banker wearing a skimpy skirt and sheer blouse, but I have the same reaction when I see our neighbor out for a walk in impossibly short shorts, which granted, do accentuate her long, slender legs. Politics or not, Czech women dress to impress.

I remember one shopping excursion with Radek and my mother when differences in tastes and cultures came to the forefront. It was my mother’s first trip to Prague and the first-time she met my then-boyfriend Radek. Although Radek and my mom both enjoy shopping, it became clear in the first store when he selected tight-fitting jeans and a slim camisole and my mother selected a loose skirt and blousy top, that their styles were undeniably different. Flaunting my figure wasn’t something that I grew up doing, so when my boyfriend turned to my mother and said something like, “her bottom looks really great in those jeans,” my mother and I both raised our eyebrows. Needless to say, I bought the jeans.

From reading an account of women’s experiences during Communism, entitled How We Survived Communism and Even Laughed, by the acclaimed Serbo-Croatian author Slavenka Drakulic, I learned that keeping up femininity and style was an arduous and often disheartening battle for women during the Communist era. During Communism, tampons and feminine pads were hard-to-come by luxuries, along with facial and body cosmetics, nice toilet paper, different colors of hair dye, deodorant and a slew of other feminine personal-care products deemed superfluous by the state. As a result of being denied the option of purchasing pampering products, women’s desire to be sexy or provocative became even more essential.

In one chapter on “Make-up and other crucial questions,” Drakulic writes of her mother using homemade beauty remedies, such as applying cold cucumber slices to her eyes, lemon and vinegar rinses to her hair, and corn flour peeling masks, Drakulic emphases that in those days, turning to natural beauty products was a last-resort, rather than a choice. Today, being a hip and trendy woman in the Western hemisphere often means rejecting artificial beauty products, but this isn’t yet the case in the East, where cosmetics and Western clothes, so long denied, still hold appeal. Later in the chapter, Drakulic interviews a Hungarian journalist holding an issue of Vogue, who declares, “Sometimes I think the real Iron Curtain is made of silky, shiny images of pretty women dressed in wonderful clothes, of pictures from women’s magazines.” She goes on to argue that the images that crossed the borders in Western fashion magazines, movies and videos were more dangerous than any other Communism weapon because they led women to despise the reality of their life, since they knew that there was no chance for them to obtain anything pictured in the magazines and moreover, because the magazines themselves, the quality of their print and paper, were also unobtainable.

Reading Drakulic’s account of Communism from Eastern European women’s perspectives put the Czech women’s approach to femininity in an entirely different light. Not so very long ago, it would have been unthinkable to create a calendar like this in the Czech Republic. In a sense, printing the “pin-up” calendar seems like a blatant affront, the boldest rebuttal to an era that gave women equal job-opportunities, but denied them their femininity. Although the Czech Republic still rates behind other European nations in equal pay for male and females, particularly for females with higher education, it’s becoming ever more clear that it will be up to Czech women to fight in order to be paid well and be duly recognized.

For this new generation of Czech politicians, earning seats in parliament is a good first step toward changing the traditionally male-centered political arena. Showing politicians have a feminine, albeit sexy, side shouldn’t detract from their potential influence. But it will take more than a 12-month calendar to make lasting policy changes.

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