Brendan Smialowski/Getty Images
As the Senate Judiciary Committee sets July 13 as the date to vote on her nomination to the Supreme Court, “charming” is emerging as the unlikely frame for Elena Kagan’s performance last week. Slate sums it up when they proclaim that Kagan has “charmed and disarmed every step of the way.” The images the hearing produced echo that theme, with an unprecedented number of shots showing the nominee laughing and smiling. This photo features a relaxed Kagan, leaning forward toward the Senators like one would lean into a conversation during a date. The hand placed coquettishly on her cheek enhances the effect. That this frame has taken hold is notable, given the media’s track record of caricaturing competitive single career women who do not necessarily conform to traditional notions of beauty (think Janet Reno).
Upon closer examination, however, the image suggests the progress women have made in terms of managing their political personae. On one hand, Kagan’s attire is a throwback to the 80s power suit—its serious, somber shade softened only by the requisite strand of pearls. Her understated makeup and cropped hair similarly invoke gravitas. In a previous era, this formula would have effectively allowed her to perform her credibility but would simultaneously have branded her a hard-edged careerist . . . or worse. Today, Kagan is being lauded not only for her competence fielding questions but also for her genuine appeal.