Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Media Skirts Responsibility to Women

This morning, while riding the orange line to work, the following particularly eloquent letter to the editor of the Washington City Paper from Deb Callahan, of Bethesda, Md., caught my eye:

City Paper needs an attitude adjustment regarding women elected officials. Your article “Blighted Cropp” (9/8) soundly insulted virtually every female politician cited based on a perceived physical imperfection. Your lead paragraph twice referred to Cropp’s weight, your highlighted sidebar referenced Councilman Kathy Patterson’s perceived lack (and supposed need?) of Botox treatments, and in perhaps the most bizarre slam you refer to Nancy Pelosi as “116 years old but looks like she could be Patterson’s daughter.” The men, meanwhile, are held to some different kind of standard. You find Harold Ford “hot”? Come on, nice looking, but hot? Get a grip. This is an election, not Project Runway.

As soon as I got into the office, I looked up the article in the City Paper’s archives and sure enough, the second line in the cover story on the D.C. mayoral campaign read: “How much does mayoral contender Linda Cropp weigh these days? Has she shed a pound or two this summer?” And then the author adds insult to injury by making the ludicrous claim that “such questions…actually go to the heart of the Sept. 12 Democratic mayoral primary.”

I’m sorry, but…what?

Since when do we choose to elect (or not elect) public officials on the basis of body weight? Why should the American public care about the appearances of our decision-makers and policy-changers? Shouldn’t the general consensus be that as long as they look somewhat put-together and maybe, oh, I don’t know, do their job right, we don’t have a problem? Yeah, sure…except when the figure in question happens to be a woman.

We all know that the professional world is often—okay, usually—skewed in favor of men. Their work has, after all, been consistently valued more than the work of women; their very presence in the office is never assumed to be distracting to the other employees; they don’t generally require time off for gestation and lactation; and, since they are rarely considered primary caregivers by their employers, their schedules are not perceived as being tethered to the demands of childcare. So when a woman rises to the top of her field, either by remaining childless or through the cooperation of a particularly helpful partner, why can’t we hold her, as a professional, to the same standards of attire as a man?

In fact, we see this scenario replay itself ad nauseam every time a woman steps into any public arena which is not exclusively relegated to the world of fashion, children, the home, or entertainment—especially politics and news journalism, those good-ol’-boy standbys. Instead of being presented on the basis of merit and a lifetime of achievement, she is swiftly taken down a few notches, reminded of her second-class status by a media which inevitably either applauds or disapproves of her choice in wardrobe, hairstyle, relationship history, children, or lack thereof. And it doesn’t stop with her entrance into the spotlight; rather, no matter how well she performs at her job, she will be harangued throughout her career, asked questions no interviewer would dare utter to a man with half of her clout. While most of the negative effects of such media harassment are obvious, there is one which is not quite so blatant: when a female figure’s press is dominated by comments about her inherent femaleness, the public knows less about her platforms or career goals than it would were she a man, thus significantly reducing her chance of success.

This matter was first brought to my attention a few years ago, when one of my favorite college professors complained to our class about the undue attention her personal style had garnered amongst her mostly male colleagues. I thought she always looked the part of a professional, but apparently others disagreed. If she wore a skirt, for example, someone was sure to tell her that she looked really nice (no one commented when she wore slacks). Once she wore a pair of fine-waled fishnets, which she thought looked perfectly modest, and her department head snidely commented, “I didn’t know it was Halloween already!” None of my male professors’ wardrobes was up for public review; in fact, were I to compliment, say, the way a male professors’ facial hair was groomed on a particular day, I am quite sure I would have received the kind of withering stare reserved for only the most insolent of students. The difference is clear: when drawing attention to personal appearance, and hence to the body itself, a man need not feel violated, whereas a woman often feels threatened and sexualized in the same situation. In researching this topic, I found more articles criticizing women for dressing too sexy in the workplace than ones which admonished male employees for making it an issue to begin with. This tactic is called victim-blaming, and is among the more tiresome of sexist defenses.

Case in point: Katie Couric made headlines as part of her historic emergence as the first female network anchor to go solo. But it wasn’t so much the fact that the credits listed her as managing editor, or the way she reformatted CBS’s Evening News structure, that our attention was drawn to. Instead, we heard the collective gasp of critics across the country—“A white blazer after Labor Day? What was she thinking?” Never mind that, were we to compile the heinous hairpieces of America’s male anchors, we’d have standing before us a veritable mountain range; these guys are not exactly clad in Armani. It’s completely acceptable for a man to commit a fashion faux-pas, but as Judy Woodruff, erstwhile CNN anchor, was quoted in the Washington Post ( http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2006/09/11/AR2006091101303.html) on the subject of Couric’s debut, “You know you will be judged by your appearance if you’re a woman…if you don’t like to worry about hair and makeup and clothes, you should go into radio or print.”

At least she’s in good company: Couric can now join the scads of “media tarts” (a title coined by Australian author Julia Baird, in her book of the same title). We’ve all witnessed attacks on the physical appearances of Condoleezza Rice, Geraldine Ferraro, Elizabeth Dole, Hillary Clinton, and Harriet Miers. Who could forget the infamously unbearable USA Today interview in which, after a heated discussion regarding conditions at Abu Ghraib, Barbara Slavin pressed Condoleezza Rice to reveal, of all things, the truth behind rumors of her size six dress size, or the obscene amount of press—dominatrix jokes being the most common—Rice received when she wore those black stiletto boots. For the ultimate experience in this kind of idiocy, check out http://sparklepony.blogspot.com/, where a blogger known as “Princess Sparkle Pony” has so kindly provided a color-coded “Condoleezza Hairdo Alert System,” along with a photo-documented play-by-play of Harriet Miers’s runny eyeliner and wispy bangs. Should it come as a surprise that, when I looked at Princess Sparkle Pony’s profile, the blogger turned out to be a forty-one year old man?

No wonder women make up such a small percentage (22.5 percent at last count) of national leadership! Their media coverage is filtered through the gender stereotypes of producers, editors, reporters, bloggers, and eventually, by the voters themselves, through a tendency to discuss female candidates in relation to their chances of winning and “less devoted to issues and more likely to emphasize their possession of typical feminine traits and their strengths in typical female policy areas,” according to Jessica Aubin’s recent study on media coverage of women candidates (White House Studies, Fall 2005). Since most voters rely on traditional media outlets, this “style over substance” treatment has a predictably negative effect at the polls, as voters are generally more well-informed about male candidates’ platforms.

So, the next time you see a newspaper or magazine wasting valuable print space critiquing the looks of a female politician (or for that matter any other woman in the public), follow Deb Callahan’s lead and write a letter to the editor. You never know how many critical eyes your letter will affect, and the publication will certainly sit up and take notice of the fact that they are offending at least half of their readers with all of that nonsense.

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