The Bush twins’ pitchy, flighty vocal inflections still ringing in our ears.
First, “party girl” Jenna: “Ganny, we love you dearly, but you’re just not very hip.” And then the “smart one” Barbara: “Jenna and I are really not very political.”
The Bush twins, our American first daughters, one blond, one mousy-haired, one U. Texas, one Yale, showed up at the Republican National Convention in all their sisterly glory, intending to inspire American boys and girls with their flirty, vapid charms, and woo Ma and Pa with a Parent Trap –style sweetness. No matter how shell-shocked we felt after their sugar bombs, most unnerving might have been that we recognized that serious/silly dichotomy immediately. Watching the tug of war between naughty and nice is a potent voyeuristic pastime. That the one-two punch was delivered by sisters makes it all the more thrilling.
In fact, our media-sopped heads are aswim with sisters. The egregiously tan socialites Paris and Nikki Hilton huddle together in long-limbed poses for US Weekly . The neurasthenic, startle-eyed Olsen twins yuk it up for the millionth time in their young lives, round little faces pressed close, in practiced affection. And MTV fixtures Jessica and Ashlee Simpson, and their lower-visibility pop-tart cognates, Hilary and Haylie Duff, flash their whitened smiles in professionally styled defiance.
In the words of feminist icon Robin Morgan, “Sisterhood is powerful.” The sentiment is truer now than ever, but maybe not in the way she meant it in the 1970′s. Today’s hot power couple isn’t a man and a woman joined by matrimonial pledge, but two cutesy-poo girls yoked together by DNA.
As a spectacle, you can’t beat sisters. With a wholesome, family-values façade and undercurrent of cheesy sexual innuendo, the sister thing makes sense in a society that’s as conflicted about notions of family (They’re your support system! No, screw it, who needs anyone?) as it is about sex (We want fantasy! Eek, too much-retreat!). Rife with potential for conflict, comparison and erotic suggestion, you can’t deny that sisterhood makes a compelling spectator sport and a top-notch marketing ploy.
The Redgraves, the Mandrells, the Collinses-sisters have always conjured up cultural fascination, a sense of awe that some mom and dad actually had enough celebrity genes to go around for more than one kid.
But the new wrinkle is that sisters are being trotted out in the name of Presidential aspiration. Veer away from Hollywood and zoom in on Washington and you’ve got two buzz-making sisterly duos: Democrat daughters Alexandra and Vanessa Kerry, and first twins Jenna and Barbara Bush, the only Presidential daughters to trade up from Beltway curiosities to full-blown tabloid fodder. This year, they became the ultimate campaign tool. Exploiting your family image for political gain is an American tradition, going back to the tweed-romper cuteness of Caroline and John-John heightening the Camelot mystique of John F. Kennedy. But now the siblings are female, nubile and groomed with the media eye in mind.
The Bush twins, now 22, are pulling ahead as the hip campaigning daughters. College-educated party dolls, they exude a giddy Girls Gone Wild mania that’s hard to ignore. They took to the podium at the R.N.C., heedless and clueless, like two wonks shot from a Cuervo Gold cannon, and delivered their now-notorious speech. The handiwork of former Presidential counselor Karen Hughes, the writing had a gormless “banker at the rave” quality to it. With flabby jokes and tin-eared, outdated pop-culture references, it was a king-size sampler platter of stupid-if your jaw didn’t drop open from the first sentence, it must’ve been wired shut.
The real shocker, however, wasn’t the speech itself but the giggle-giggle-hair-toss delivery and ditzy-chick ditzy-chick posture. The folks at home know these kittenish machinations intimately-they see them at the mall, or remember them from high school. Whether you were that type of girl, loathed that type of girl or got your heart broken by that type of girl, you recognized their type of reckless exuberance at being young, sexy and, in their cases, wealthy and powerful, the apparent knowledge that they could behave however they wanted and someone would still give them a pass for being “cute.”
The performance was the speechifying equivalent of a wardrobe malfunction-one of those TV moments that burns into the pop-cult consciousness as a glorious mistake. Which would be funny if the situation didn’t pertain to influencing something as significant as a Presidential election. Sayeth Jenna from the podium, “You know all those times when you’re growing up and your parents embarrass you? Well, this is payback time on live TV.”
Watching the twins act as if girlish wile and privilege absolved them of responsibility or even adult vocal inflection brought up a Hiltonesque reaction: Look at this crap-spacey, fluffy, smug and, oh God, there’s two of them. (One doesn’t feel that way when watching Venus and Serena Williams. Maybe because they had to work for what they have.) There is something undeniably easy or lucky about these shinier celebrity sister acts; not only are they famous, but they always have someone around to get their back. You, the poor schlub at home, are a mere one. They are a unified, untouchable, blow-dried and pedicured Teflon Two. They win.
Funny thing about that speech, though. Sure, it was dippy and crass-but heck if it didn’t work. It was the ultimate in smart-stupid promotion tactics, lifted straight from the bimbo playbook. It speaks to the campaign strategy of our times: You don’t have to be informed and you don’t have to make sense. You just have to be seen. The speech was no more substantial than Clinton honking away on his sax during the Arsenio show over a decade ago, and it didn’t need to be. The point was pop-culture bounce and they got it. Double your pleasure, double your fun. Double your votes? Well, we’ll see. It might not help, but silly as it was, it didn’t seem to hurt.
The same can’t be said for the Kerry sisters’ sad showing at the MTV Video Music Awards in Miami. The Kerrys had the same basic setup: One blonde, one brunette, one campaigning dad they wanted to support. Trying desperately to rock the vote, they barely made it past easy-listening. The dutiful daughters, couture-clad and poli-sci-major serious, got vociferously booed, just like their dad at Fenway Park last July. (The Bush twins also made a video appearance, but the Kerrys were actually there in Miami.) Their faces betrayed not only pain and embarrassment, but indignation. One of them tried to shush the crowd. The Kerry sisters are proof that celebrity sisterhood takes some strategy. Giggles à deux trip the applause meter, while two girls bearing a message in stereophonic schoolmarm style won’t fare as well in the public eye.
Watching Alexandra and Vanessa eat it was a twofer pity party. In an “It” obsessed era, their presentation made the viewer painfully aware that these two are utterly “It”-less. The Kerry’s vibe is akin to Tracy Flick crossed with a Bennington girl who sulks in the corner at a party, plucking hairs out of her head one by one. No matter how many times Alexandra shows off her fried eggs through draped black chiffon at Cannes, that dour, long-faced New England reserve queers the air. The Heinz-Kerrys are just not a bunch that screams “get on board.” But the election is still weeks away, so maybe the Kerry girls will rally, giving the Bush twins a bit of a challenge. Maybe they’ll catfight. (Dude! That’d be awesome!)
What’s interesting, however, is the potential clawing going on within these power couples. Any twosome implies tension-an unstated battle for supremacy. Yet no matter how many hectoring reporters may ask, every celeb sister swears her kin is more inspiration than competition, thus leaving it up to us to set them against each other. And so we do. Poet Louise Gluck wrote: “Of two sisters one is always the watcher, one the dancer.” See through that scrim of lyrical politesse and you’ll get at the unvarnished truth: One sister gets nudged into the spotlight as The Hot One, while the other is doomed to be, at best, The Smart One. (Usually, she’s just The Other One.)
For proof positive that yes, we do actually have time to ponder such matters, look no further than the Internet, our infallible digital id. Compare-the-sisters Web sites, message boards and articles abound, with tonal range from bitchy to lecherous. The only constant is a choose-or-lose mandate. Would that we were so interested in voting for a President instead of a Twinkie.
One camp roots for Paris, with her globe-trotting, dog-toting, porn-making arriviste antics, while another favors Nikki, with her stabs at stability and (hasty) marriage to an older financier. Some prefer the angular-featured Haylie to the peachy smooth Hilary. Others are turned off by earnest Ashlee but swoon over spazzy golden girl Jessica. (Ashlee’s lyrics in her song “Shadow” hints at cracks in the sister-luv ferment as she whines about someone who sounds very much like Jessica: “She was beautiful / She had everything and more … I was living in the shadow / Of someone else’s dream.”)
We love to watch celebrity sisters because they embody sibling rivalry writ large, but with better clothes and freakier sexual subtext. Do we want to see them fight or kiss? Do we want to be in the middle of that sisterly action, watch it or flee in terror? What, we wonder, do the parents really think of their daughters being so publicly and permanently objectified?
The sister-watch is so engrossing it seems a shame that this armchair event is limited to pop culture and politics. Why not expand it to include journalism and literature? I’m seeing prime opportunity for Ruth and Wendy Shalit (cage match: stylish plagiarist versus virginal pedant). And, the Sykes sisters are the ultimate cosmo-set trifecta. (They can duke it out with the Minots, who bring a certain cloth-bound cred into the arena.) With a little arts-’n'-letters retrofit, we could get the Brontës in on the action. Snap to, publicists, snap to! Here’s your chance to get Jane Austen off that pedestal she’s been hogging since the dawning days of chick lit.
We could further extend the family-bond franchise and begin objectifying brotherhood as well, but that would likely diminish the men’s image rather than enhance it. Men, whether they trade on their sex appeal or not, are meant to stand on their own, to bask only in their own glory or that which they inherit from their father. Patrilineal splendor is money in the bank, but brother-to-brother glow is for pussies. Guys shifting in and out of fraternal shadow are emasculated, a point made particularly obvious if one brother operates at a power deficit, like Billy Carter or Roger Clinton shrinking boozedly in the wake of their President brothers. And it doesn’t work when they’re more or less equals, either. Think Shaun and David Cassidy, Nick and Aaron Carter, Nick and Drew Lachey. Even Olympic gymnasts Paul and Morgan Hamm seem too much like a porno trope to have much heft.
We’re tumbling in the midst of a culture threesome-pop culture, politics and psychosexual hype are sweaty bedfellows now. And here we lie, the media consumers, smack dab in the middle with a good-bad, cute-ugly, smart-stupid sister on either side. One comely lass might spark our attention, but two, with the suggestion of abundance and perversion, closes the deal. Our gaze is held.
When feminist Morgan said so long ago that sisterhood is powerful, could she have known how that sentiment might be corrupted? The eyeball-grabbing potential of a sister duo speaks more to the power of titillation than to the power of authentic female agency. It’s the ultimate statement of this cultural moment, when coy spectacle trumps substance. It’s so sexy. It’s so obvious. It’s so perfect.
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