Remember the scene from Mad Men when Peggy Olson has lipstick on her teeth during an important, all-male presentation and no one tells her until afterwards? She winds up landing the account (notably, it’s for a women’s product), leaving the audience to wonder if her harmless gaffe somehow softened her to the male clients. Later, Matthew Weiner told the Times that the scene was inspired by a female colleague who had the same experience in the eighties.
Which brings us to Condoleezza Rice’s lipstick-smeared speech at the RNC last night. A different context, sure, but the same theme: A respected woman makes an important, intelligent speech, but her audience can’t stop staring at the lipstick on her teeth — and feeling awkward for even noticing.
Many who pointed out Rice’s lipstick (mostly on Twitter) expressed embarrassment, and with good reason: Criticizing or even commenting on the looks of female politicians is slimy business. The golden rule is to ignore how they look — or, if anything, point out its insignificance. Vogue editor-at-large (and noted liberal) Andre Leon Talley tweeted, “If Professor, former Sec. of State, Condoleeza [sic] Rice had lipstick on her teeth, so what. She spoke with true eloquence and raised the bar!”
But the Peggy Olson analogy is still worth considering. As Mitt Romney struggles to obtain more female votes, Rice’s big return to the Republican political stage is an important gesture. It goes without saying that her so-called “beauty blunder” is innocuous and ultimately relatable for many women. It may even, like in Peggy’s case, even help endear her (and in turn, her party) to voters.