22 de Agosto: ‘A pesar de su belleza…’

You may have heard that, in Bolivia, a “beauty queen” has recently been named to a major government position in the “war on drugs.”  Last Sunday, Andrés Schipani and Rory Carroll of The Observer reported on the appointment of British-born, Bolivian-raised Jessica Anne Jordan Burton to post of viceroy of the tropical Beni province, where Jordan’s principal responsibility will ostensibly be “cleaning up the drug-infested” region. Describing Jordan as a “former model and beauty queen” who has never occupied public office, the authors assert that the new viceroy “cuts a[n]…incongruous figure.” Accompanied by a photo of the appointee with her fist raised in “determination,” the article repeatedly juxtaposes Jordan’s beauty with the raw, rugged character of her new position–a position which, the authors imply, inserts her into “a macho, brutal world where grim-faced soldiers [battle] ruthless narco-traffickers.”

Fortunately, the Andean Information Network (AIN) was not long in correcting the multiple mischaracterizations of this article, some focusing on Jordan, and others on Bolivia’s drug policy.  Regular readers know that I am hesitant to endorse Bolivian president Evo Morales’ appointment of women to public office. In general, it seems that Morales elevates just those women who he can easily manipulate, many of whom lack relevant experience, only to satisfy a quota system of his own design.  In this case, however, The Observer’s characterization of Jordan as simply a beauty queen who “has never held previous public office” omits important details, which the AIN corrects in its August 16 brief.

Bolivian indigenous women attend the World People's Conference on Climate Change and the Rights of Mother Earth in Tiquipaya, on the outskirts of Cochabamba, April 20, 2010. REUTERS/David Mercado (BOLIVIA - Tags: ENVIRONMENT POLITICS)
Image courtesy of PicApp.

According to the AIN, Evo’s appointment of Jordan to the position of “Beni Director of Border Development” represents a typical practice of Bolivian administrations of “[appointing] leaders who lost in national elections” to positions within the government. Apparently, despite having never held a public office, Jordan lost a recent election for the governorship of the Beni by only 3%.  The AIN also criticizes Schipani and Carroll for misrepresenting Jordan’s new position, which, far from catapulting her to the status of “figurehead in Bolivia’s…campaign against cocaine barons,” actually places her in charge of border control in all of its forms–including monitoring and fighting “illicit trafficking, corruption, poverty and ‘illegal logging and gold mining’.”

These misrepresentations of the UK press are truly disappointing, seeming to draw on and to exploit a variety of stereotypes about women and our roles.  (This, without even delving into The Observer article’s problematic portrayal of Bolivia’s drug policies, described in the AIN piece.)

First, Schipani and Carroll do a disservice to Jordan by disregarding her background in politics and by insinuating that her prior participation in beauty contests and modeling–and, by extension, her beauty itself–makes her ill-prepared for public office.  Second, the authors’ mischaracterization of Jordan’s new position as an anti-drug Indiana Jones who will be battling drug barons left and right in the “jungles” of Bolivia is likely meant to eroticize her by evoking images of a scantily clad Xena-like warrior fighting crime.  Since the article further portrays Jordan’s post as dangerous, her quoted statements on her attitude toward the post–serene, in comparison–make her seem naive, like she could not possibly know what she is getting herself into.

What it comes down to is this: Schipani and Carroll are more interested in crafting a racy story about a beauty-queen-turned-drug-buster than in Jordan’s real qualifications and recent appointment to office.  As it is for so many women, Jordan’s beauty is both a requirement of her acceptance into “real” womanhood, and the reason her abilities are doubted.  I, for one, am interested in the outcome of this most recent appointment of a woman to office in Bolivia.  Press reports on Jordan’s progress, however, will likely be hard to find–once she gets down to the job, fully clothed and more often at a desk than hanging from a jungle vine, journalists like Schipani and Carroll will probably lose interest.

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