By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 20, 2010; C01
There are nearly naked pictures of would-be senator Martha Coakley of Massachusetts floating around on the Internet.
No, there aren't. We made that up to shock you. (Were you shocked?)
Because there are nearly naked pictures of Scott Brown, who defeated her in Tuesday's special election to fill the seat left by the late Edward M. Kennedy.
The morning after the election, a student of gender politics might ask: How different would the story have looked if the shoe -- Lack of shoes? Lack of clothes? -- actually had been on the female body?
The pictorial in question is a much-circulated 1982 centerfold from Cosmopolitan magazine, in which Brown was declared "America's Sexiest Man." In a two-page slice of beefcake, the then-22-year-old reclines on a blanket with nothing but a serendipitously-placed wrist covering his manly bits. Nice smile, nice abs. Also: Was everyone that hairy in 1982?
The general reaction from the media over the past few months can be described as ranging from "Meh," to "Oh, Sen. Brown!"
"Joe Six-Pack with a law degree," one article jauntily said in describing him.
"In what will no doubt sew up the women's vote," began another, before sharing the history of the photos (Brown was a student; he modeled to pay for tuition).
Cosmo offered a new campaign slogan: "Vote for Brown. He Has One Hell of a Stimulus Package."
Coakley had been favored to win the seat, but in recent weeks Brown unexpectedly had a last-minute surge in polls.
One editorial pitied Coakley, lamenting that she "came of age at a time when posing nude, and living to tell about it politically, wasn't an option for women."
And by "at a time," they must mean "now." If Brown had breasts, the media and public response might have been more virulent.
"Men who are naughty are [viewed as] just dudes being dudes," says Eric Dezenhall, a crisis management specialist in Washington. "Women who are naughty are unstable and must be stopped."
But what about Sarah Palin? Wasn't she a little naughty, with her pageant background and her red high heels and librarian glasses? Maybe if old pictures of Palin, wearing nothing but a grin and a wrist, resurfaced, it wouldn't have been such a big --
"No. No. No. No. No," says Sue Tolleson-Rinehart, editor of the compendium "Gender and American Politics." "A female candidate for whom such photographs were uncovered would have a very difficult time living it down." With men, it's different. It's even, plausibly, laudable. "You might argue that he's projecting a kind of virility that we associate with strength and leadership."
When is the last time you heard someone look at a picture of a naked woman and comment on her leadership skills? Remember Hillary Clinton's cleavage, and what stir that inch of skin caused after one 2007 debate?
No one argued then that men -- aroused by some primordial mammary fixation -- might feel compelled to vote for Clinton, though such an argument might have been based on research. In 2008, researchers at Northwestern University found that male voters were swayed by sexuality, predominantly declaring that the more "competent" female candidates were the more attractive ones.
Still, the gender stereotype persists that women voters are either "led by their husbands or fathers, or they make decisions based on superficial qualities" such as physical appearance, says Tolleson-Rinehart, citing the 1960s commentators who assumed that women would swoon their way to the voting booths and, in a pheromone-induced coma, vote for John F. Kennedy.
For a response, let's turn to two voting women of Massachusetts.
"I don't think [the centerfold] is an issue at all," Celeste Wilson says stiffly. Wilson is the president of the Massachusetts Federation of Republican Women and supported Brown. "He's simply saying things that people are interested in."
Says Patty McGregor, a voice-over actress in Boston who voted for Coakley, "I'm not sure what I feel. I'm just horrified."