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.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

10 MORE Things You Can Do to Better the Lives of Younger Women!

(1) Speak Up! I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been the only one advocating for women’s issues in my college classes, only to learn later that there are other young women who feel the same way but who didn’t want to say anything. I understand that it can be daunting to speak your mind, especially in the face of opposition, but please, for the sake of all women, say something! For example, if someone in class says that children of working mothers are dysfunctional and violent, engage them in a discussion about whether that’s factual, or a social construct, and why they think it. Don’t be abrasive, but don’t be afraid to debate either. We need to speak up for ourselves, for each other, for women of color, for all women. When we stay silent, we stay complacent.

(2) Be an Ally to Women of Color. This tip is stolen straight from books like White Privilege: Readings on the Other Side of Racism by Paula Rothenberg, which offer being an ally as one way to end racism. If you are a woman of color, be an ally by advocating for yourself and your fellow women; if you’re not, stand up for women of color and have their back. This goes along with the electronic voice on the Metro that says, “if you see something, say something.” So if you see that the black woman ahead of you gets asked for two IDs when using her credit card, offer to give 2 IDs yourself – simple actions like this (along with larger ones) are the ways that we can strip racism of the significant hold it has on our lives.

(3) One Word: 401K. One of the best things you can do for younger women is to tell them to save money for retirement. It may seem silly now, in our 20’s and 30’s, to be anticipating our 70’s and 80’s, but when that day inevitably comes, you’ll want to have a nice nest egg on which to depend. We women are too often neglected when it comes to financial advice, but putting away for retirement is a great source of empowerment for younger women. It means that we’ll have the financial security that men already have, which is ultimately worth more than that recent impulse buy.

(4) Keep an Eye Out. What I mean by this is, watch your friends and colleagues for signs of things that happen to women every day: eating problems, emotionally and physically abusive relationships, sexual harassment, etc. Obviously, I don’t mean for you to stalk younger women and interrogate them on their personal lives. But be aware that, all too often, younger women experience these kinds of issues, and if you notice it happening, try to bring it up in a way that is supportive and not condemning. Women tend to feel trapped into eating problems and dysfunctional relationships, and too much pushing will only make them retreat into themselves further. But be there for them, and be ready to talk about it, and one day they just might open up and ask for help. I’ve noticed that people tend to avoid these uncomfortable situations indefinitely, but when that happens, younger women lose.

(5) Support Woman-Friendly Political Candidates. Make sure that, when you vote (which I’m sure all of you do), you read up on all of the candidates (a couple helpful sites are http://thomas.loc.gov and http://www.vote-smart.org/index.htm). The most important thing you can probably read about each person is her/his voting history. Research like this will show you what the candidates are really interested in, as opposed to what they say to get elected; also, don’t be afraid to see candidates speak and ask them specific questions. If they’re going to represent you, then they better have younger women in mind!

(6) Give Your Fellow Younger Women a Hand Up. If men have the “old boys’ club” we should certainly have a similar (if more inclusive and less disgusting) club of our own. Basically, tell other younger women about job openings and opportunities that will help them reach their goals. And when you succeed, mentor younger women so that they can get to the top too. Working together - simple as that.

(7) Read the News. As depressing as the news can be (especially these days), we have to keep up-to-date on the world around us. For me, that means reading the Express newspaper (the mini version of the Washington Post) on the Metro and scanning the headlines of online versions of progressive newspapers. You can make it more fun by reading blogs to see what’s happening (and usually the blog will link the article itself). But however you get your news, get it – we younger women have to be on top of things if we’re going to be taken seriously, and if each of us stays at least semi-informed, then we’re that much closer.

(8) Smile. I think I can safely say that we all wish people were nicer – so why not start with ourselves? I tripped – pretty much fell – on the Metro escalator today, ending up in a rather embarrassing pose while holding onto the side for dear life. What made it better? The girl next to me who smiled at me when I laughed at myself. These are the kind of insignificant (yet significant) moments that make all of our lives better.

(9) Upkeep Your Relationships. I know we’re all getting through college, applying for jobs, having a tough time at work, trying to take care of kids (and ourselves), and/or are dealing with the many other things that our 20’s and 30’s bring. But, during all the chaos, don’t forget to communicate with your fellow women. Send your mom an e-card, call your sister, send your girlfriend flowers, listen to a friend vent about her job. Just keep your relationships solid, and never take the women in your life for granted.

(10) Defy Stereotypes. This one’s pretty easy, because just by living and being ourselves, we defy the stereotypes that exist about younger women. Play sports. Excel in math and science. Decide not to have children. Skip the make-up. Basically, experiment. Figure out who you are, what you want and make special efforts to try new things without being afraid that you’re not fitting into a certain mold, because after all, it’s the same mold we’re trying to break!