the under-reported things about Elena Kagan, the current Supreme Court nominee,
has to do about her looks. Not that her looks have been under-
reported. There's been plenty on that. The subject, though, is not what
she looks like, so much as what it means. And, like most superficial
things, it does tie into some more important strands that run through her life.
fills an older stereotype, even for her generation (she was born in 1960). She
is the perfect "kid sister." not the musical group of today, but the
creation of the film world decades ago, a type to handle tom boys, or the girl
who hung with the guys, played ball, wasn't a threat to their masculinity by
being so pretty she would cause dissension in the ranks. It wasn't that
the kid sister was female identified; indeed, just the opposite: she did spend
a lot of time with the boys. Kagan seems to fit the type. The picture of
her playing softball when she taught at the University of Chicago seems to
capture it. She's spent most of her time in male-dominated professions.
And, most tellingly, she was a quick starter who advanced rapidly.
began her rise in the world (after Princeton, Oxford, Harvard) by clerking,
first, for Abner Mikva and then for Thurgood Marshall. And it has been
one of the strangest side shows of the Kagan hearings that the Republicans keep
beating up on Marshall, as if alienating Hispanics wasn't enough during the
Sotomayor hearings, they want to diss African Americans, too. Having a
literal African-American President hasn't yet seemed to have sunk in to their
conscious minds, just their unconscious ids. Well, Kagan's clerkships
lead to the U. of Chicago gig, which lead to the Clinton White House, which
lead to Harvard, etc.
what this proves, at least to me, is the kid sister line of advancement, where
men keep pushing you forward, figures of authority more than father figures,
because of your abilities, competence and comradeship. Marshall, Clinton,
and his surrogates, Larry Summers et. Alia, which, for Kagan, leads to Harvard
Law and, eventually, after Summers implodes, to its Deanship. Obama then
taps her to be Solicitor General. Working in the White House is a
common gateway to the Supreme Court. William Rehnquist was working for AG
John Mitchell when Nixon appointed Rehnquist to the Court. Thurgood Marshall
had been Lyndon Johnson's Solicitor General.
does this all mean? Well, it depends who's asking. For being Dean
of Harvard Law, Kagan is very lightly published, so lightly she may not
have been given tenure at other law schools not as assured of their own
preeminence. It shows the force of proximity to power and how quickly it
can lead to top jobs. It actually replaces some of the usual
qualifications. It's amazing what gets overlooked once you're at the top. But
it also owes something to the kid sister personality, the way it works easily
with men of power. Up, up and away. Given the era, or cultural
moment I've been talking about that hatched the kid sister, another phrase of
that time comes to mind that fits someone like Kagan: she has a "good
personality." Good personality was supposed to be some salve for
lacking good looks.
can a good personality lead to, even in 2010? Well, the Supreme Court,
for one place, if nothing else.