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What Kind of Power is PantsuitPower?

Why that Hillary flash mob is so brilliant.

Michael Lawrence
Oct 15, 2016 · 9 min read

What are we looking at? An event. A flash mob.

A carefully orchestrated performance designed to pop up in a public space. Spontaneously. Or rather, as though spontaneously. A superficial spontaneity. A produced spontaneity. Not unplanned, but unforced, unsolicited. The manifestation of a collective impulse.

A public’s display of affection? Performance art? Protest? Occupation? Rally? Dance party? Demonstration? Situationist spectacle?

An interruption of the everyday order, but a disruption that brings more order, the excessive order of choreography and coordinated outfits. The power on display here is the power of a skilled and networked citizenry. Saying something like:

We stand ready, when so inspired, to act in concert, to produce a highly-polished performance, to make it look easy, and to have fun doing it.

The pantsuited posse will occupy space with bodies. And with pleasure. Hundreds of bodies, conscripted and trained in a heartbeat, and smiling about it. Deployed on cue, like the activation of a sleeper cell, in service to the cause. Able to demand and hold public attention, transforming passers-by into audience members. Compelling strangers to stop, to watch, to smile, to record.

What are we looking at? A film. A high-quality video.

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PantsuitPower is professional-grade propaganda, powered by the people. This is a people with production skills. This is a demonstration of who holds the means. Saying: We are a we that can move and can make and can make move. Watch us and watch out.

Working at the speed of spontaneous, in just a few days. They’re showing that they can make this thing, and make it well, and make it fast.

Working in the style of spontaneous — ‘spontaneity’ here becomes a technical and aesthetic accomplishment, the result of hard work and high tech. A full 30 seconds of the five-minute video are devoted to Hollywood-style credits naming directors, editors, stylists, colorists, tailors, a team of camera operators, and more. All the dancers are named too, the little guys, the troops. The rank and file footworking foot soldiers.

Dolly Parton tells us, “It takes a lot of money to look this cheap.” It takes a lot of producers to look this populist, and PantsuitPower doesn’t need to hide that fact. It takes a lot of hierarchy to create a camera-ready democratic dance party.

It takes a lot of marshaling to look this mob-like.

Are we looking at an ad?

PantsuitPower is packaged according to the rules of political advertising; see the official-looking disclaimer that it is not officially official. “Not authorized by any candidate.”

Unauthorized. Unbidden. But in support. For Hillary, by the people. Fan art, then? PantsuitPower demonstrates coordination without conspiracy. Does that make it extra democratic?

Marvel at our candidate’s ability to inspire a mass action that she has not needed to ask for. Like when Trump inspires supporters to beat up people at his rallies. But this is dancing — more ‘surprise party’ than political party, a not-in-cahoots hootenanny.

Pantsuit Power refigures Hillary not as candidate, but as as popular movement. Like Bernie, like Barack ’08, but one step further: this “movement” is made literal: a dance.

What are we looking at? A dance.

Or maybe several dances? Choreographed with room for improvisation, never lockstep. Again and again, at every level: craft in service of, not at odds with, an air of spontaneity.

The dance starts easy. Swaying and clapping. A dance for every body. And it will end easy too. But in the interim, moments of fine technique. Expert leaps and flips. A dance for people in the know. A dance for perfected bodies. Experts extemporizing on cue.

Couple dancing: men and women, women and women, women and men. Bits of ballroom, ballet, hip hop. An uncomplicated pluralist coexistence in a single plaza, with room even for moms and their confused tots (and the continuity errors that go with that).

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Shimmies. Knees. Couples. Kids.

If not already obvious from some “shimmies” evoking Hillary’s first debate performance, the choreography’s ability to pull movements from the political present becomes clear at the 3:20 mark, when the dancers take turns popping Kaepernick-style knees as others put hand on heart. It’s a chilling moment that elevates the whole routine, shifting Gap-ad glee toward social commentary, perhaps even offering a kind of challenge to the candidate, a request for Clinton to keep step with the demands of a public ready for change, articulating a different kind of gap between Hillary and her younger supporters.

But don’t worry, by 3:25, protest time is over an we’re dance, dance, dancing again, as the catchy Timberlake lyrics continue.

What are we looking at? A piece of social media content.

Highly sharable. Viral-ready. A wannabe meme. An ersatz cat video. PantsuitPower is built for an audience for whom political discourse begins and ends with the Facebook newsfeed. The video must feel like an entertaining distraction, never an ad. A guilty pleasure. Not business. Not politics.

The loftiest human sentiment it can aspire to evoke is “Like!” and “Share!” and “Hey did you see!”

And I did! And I liked. And I shared. And that’s fine. Who doesn’t like Liking? What, after all, is democratic politics but liking and sharing?

PantsuitPower is politics and advertising dressed up like a non-political, non-ad. We are only ever unofficially or incidentally or retrospectively an advertisement.

PantsuitPower shows up in our newsfeed, as though spontaneously, posted by friends and friends of friends as they become co-participants, not just sharing news of this event, but participating in its movement from screen to shining screen. Spreading across the same social media platforms by which the dancers no doubt organized themselves.

PantsuitPower involves bodies and a public square, but these are just detours. This is a digital movement. PantsuitPower is the power of dissemination, circulation. A viral-friendly pseudo-ad, it exercises the power of getting us to enjoy — and to Like — being marketed to. We volunteer our time to extend its reach. Dance, dance, dance. Share, Like, Love.

What are we looking at? A garment.

A pantsuit. 200 variations. The pantsuit is always already a twist, a queering, an appropriation, a power grab, a resignification.

The old pantsuit was a man’s garment appropriated by a woman. She, dressing like he. But PantsuitPower is an appropriative explosion: the woman’s garment adopted by the people. We, dressing like she.

PantsuitPower is an icon drawing attention to its own iconicity. The pantsuit as hashtag. The pantsuit as costume. The pantsuit as team colors. The pantsuit as drag.

The pantsuit literally turned on its head: Watch us do backflips in our pantsuits.

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A signifier of of bland, bureaucratic non-style turned into a celebration of practicality. Stylish, exuberant practicality! The practicality not of business as usual, but of getting shit done. The old pantsuit was a librarian’s sensible shoes. An attempt to make clothes signify “my clothes signify nothing.” Plain old vanilla. But PantsuitPower is Fabulous French Vanilla Bean! A blank canvas! Endless possibility!

  • It’s American Apparel’s old trick: utilitarian basics made gritty, bold, and even seductive, by virtue of poor fit and unflattering colors slung on irrepressibly sexy young people.
  • It’s the Gap’s old trick: celebrate individuality by putting everyone in the same outfit and making them dance.
  • It’s Levi’s old trick: you can do anything and everything and feel totally free while wearing this one thing all the time.
  • It’s a yogic inversion of Lululemon’s trick: anything your fancy gym clothes can do your fancy work clothes can do better.
  • It’s Britney Spears’ old trick, One More Time: a uniform, when tweaked just slightly, can become a proclamation of human desire.

There is nothing cool about the old Clintonian pantsuit — it reads as unimaginative. Boring by design, sure — It’s not about my clothes — but boring just the same. A powerful and meaningful gesture, but a stale one.

Then PantsuitPower comes along to proclaim: You know, some days I feel like making it about my clothes, because my clothes are freakin’ awesome.

The pantsuit here is about versatility, a resource for endless variation, endless creativity. Watch everyone put their spin on it. We, dressing like she, with a dose of me, me, me.

Hipster pantsuit. Queer pantsuit. Cool mom pantsuit. Evening pantsuit. Day pantsuit. Slouchy pantsuit. Capri pantsuit. Pantsuit for boys. Pantsuit for girls. Cheap pantsuit. Work pantsuit. Party pantsuit.

The old pantsuit was a denial of the body; a strategic shapelessness, a stiffness, a suit of armor. PantsuitPower reintroduces the body, the dancing body, the pregnant body, the body-on-the-line in protest body.

Active wear an activist wears. Performance wear in every sense. An effortlessly flexible leotard carefully crafted to fit the contours of the spontaneous body, the delighted body on display.

Bodies that function, that surprise, that emote. Watch what we can do in this garment. Watch what we can feel.

Is it making an argument?

What would it mean to object to PantsuitPower? What would it mean to say no? What can we do but Like? PantsuitPower evades argument, precludes disagreement. A political position refigured as, to quote JT, “a feeling” that “can’t stop.”

“Just imagine, just imagine, just imagine….”

Don’t argue or reason, “just dance, dance, dance.”

Like. Like. Like.

As a performance of spontaneity that draws attention to its own crafted-ness, its own slick production, it’s own impressive coordination, and presents all that with an air of celebration, this choreographed and cinematized mob brilliantly addresses one of the things that’s given Clinton so much trouble in terms of “likability.” People say she seems to be trying too hard to look natural. Every gesture, expression, phrase, pose, smile, hairstyle — it all seems too “worked on” to be relatable.

The PantsuitPower video/event says something like, Hey, let’s not forget that we often love it when people work really hard to make their ostensibly unscripted moments look effortlessly perfect.

The skillful production of a feeling of spontaneity, the crafting of an intimate ‘behind the scenes’ that is compelling enough to be in the scene, putting money into looking cheap — we only selectively dismiss this as deceptive or inauthentic.

(Clinton nailed this point in her comments to Humans of New York: talking about being perceived as cold and aloof, she goes on to say, “I’m not Barack Obama. I’m not Bill Clinton. Both of them carry themselves with a naturalness that is very appealing to audiences. But I’m married to one and I’ve worked for the other, so I know how hard they work at being natural.”)

Often we embrace faux naturalness. When we like it, we just call it “style” or or “character” or “poise” or “professionalism” or “a great Instagram account.”

PantsuitPower is a reminder of this. As a celebration of performed spontaneity, it takes the very symbol of cold Clintonian calculation and makes it very cool.

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They like it.

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