Many of us thought we would leave "We Saw Your Boobs" in February, dreaming ever so foolishly that Amy Poehler and Tina Fey would host every award show for all times. But the obnoxious Seth McFarlane Oscar meme returned, in the form of a Daily Caller tally that totaled all the times we saw actress and potential Senate candidate Ashley Judd's bare chest:
"We are used to knowing just about everything there is to know about serious political candidates. But will Judd be the first potential senator who has — literally — nothing left to show us?"
The Internet backlash to the article was swift and brutal—taking on the sexism, the double standard, and the outright ridiculousness of the post. (And right on cue, there was also a backlash to the backlash.) Whether you were amused, outraged, or indifferent to the Daily Caller article, it will unlikely be the last time Judd's Hollywood past is used against her, if she does indeed decide to run for office.
Judd is not the first entertainer to contemplate a political career. Sonny Bono, George Murphy, Fred Grandy, Fred Thompson, Clint Eastwood, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and, of course, Ronald Reagan, successfully made the transition from entertainment to public office.
"Their job is being able to sell a role or a message and to do that you have to be able to articulate yourself and capitalize on your personality," says Alan Schroeder, a professor at Northeastern University's School of Journalism and author of Celebrity-in-Chief: How Show Business Took Over the White House. "Innately, [entertainers] have a lot of those skills because that's what they've be doing in their entertainment careers."
"Film stars have the advantage of working with people who will put them in front of the camera and give them their talking points. Reagan was very good at that," says Burton W. Peretti, professor at Western Connecticut State University and author of The Leading Man: Hollywood and the Presidential Image. "Policy is very different than mastering a script." And even Reagan took some digs for his movie star cred. His California gubernatorial rival, Pat Brown, famously compared Reagan's acting career to that of John Wilkes Booth, in a campaign ad.
"One of the challenges for any entertainer who makes that leap into politics [is that] they have to overcome their past, not just capitalize it," says Schroeder. "They have things they have to prove [that] your average candidate would not."
One such hurdle is convincing voters they're not just Hollywood hacks hungry for a new kind of fame, but concerned, policy-oriented public servants—"that you're not a serious person or that you're just capitalizing your fame as a stepping stone into office," as Schroeder describes it.
"Actors are not used to having to undergo the level of scrutiny that politicians do," says Schroeder, particularly in terms of their private lives. What is OK in Hollywood—multiple marriages, a partying past—is not always accepted in Washington.
For female entertainers, the challenge of crossing over into politics is even greater, and not only because women politicians are a minority in general. The gender stereotypes in Hollywood feed into the gender stereotype of Washington. "There is a synergy between heroic screen models portrayed by certain leading men and how that helps presidential candidates appear in public and in crisis situations," says Peretti.
"For women in show business, you not only have to overcome being in show business, you also have to overcome being cast in roles that aren't as substantive," says Schroeder. "You're already hearing criticisms from conservatives that [Judd] has done topless scenes, and that is being used as cudgel against her. That would not apply to male actors."
Dissecting what she calls Daily Caller's "theatrical slut shaming," Think Progress's Alyssa Rosenberg points out that when male actors strip down on camera (and Mother Jones highlights male actors who did, and crossed over successfully to politics), it is framed comically, with no one confusing Old School's streaking "Frank The Tank" with Will Ferrell, the man.
"But with actresses, that division appears to be less certain. If a woman takes off her top in a movie, much less baring it all, Mr. Skin and his ilk will be there to catalogue it to make sure people who only want to see her as, in the parlance of that site, 'breasts, butt, bush, underwear, sexy,'" writes Rosenberg.
Nevertheless, Judd should look to the example her forefathers and how they moved into politics. "They have to make a bit of a clean break with their past and try to disassociate form Hollywood in order to be seen in this new incarnation and taken seriously in the political context," says Schroeder. "Reagan did a good job reinventing himself."
When his acting career saw a decline after the World War II, Reagan got involved in the business side of Hollywood, and later served as the spokesperson of General Electric; he also stopped appearing in public with other actors (though Frank Sinatra and others did do some fundraising for him) to further distance himself from his showbiz past. Minnesota Senator Al Franken also has taken great pains to separate his political career from his former comedic persona. He talks almost exclusively to his state's local press, and rarely cracks jokes when speaking on the record."If [Judd] can come up with her own narrative that will make her seem like a plausible candidate, someone who is 'Kentucky'–that will overcome whatever narrative the MConnell side is putting out," says Peretti.
Judd has already taken some important steps in polishing her political image. She has a masters degree from Harvard's Kennedy School of Government—"a very serious credential," says Schroeder. She has been active in Democratic donor circles and even before reportedly considering a run, Judd often spoke publicly about political issues, particularly those concerning women's health. But the Daily Caller article, fair or not, proves that Judd will still have to work to separate herself from Hollywood. Says Schroeder, "You don't stop acting on Friday and decide to be a politician on Monday. There's a process."