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Cosmetic Coverage

The media is still obsessed with treating political women as objects, whether by telling us their dress sizes, diets or makeup habits.
 
 
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In a bizarre attempt to link Florida secretary of state Katherine Harris' fashion faux-pas to her job performance, Washington Post Style reporter Robin Givhan (11/18/00) wrote: "She seems to have applied her makeup with a trowel. At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement and calm, one wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship."

It wasn't Harris' connections to George W. Bush's presidential campaign that made Givhan doubt her impartiality, it was that she "believe[d] the magazines when they said that blue eye shadow was back. She failed to think for herself. Why should anyone trust her?"

In the weeks following the election this insulting invective was echoed by a multitude of media voices, including Givhan's Style section colleague Tony Kornheiser (Washington Post, 11/19/00), who derided Harris as "the Junior League Blind Date From Hell!" Taking their cue from late-night comedians and partisan pundits, news reporters and columnists alike relentlessly ripped into Harris' appearance, turning her hair, makeup and clothing into a national joke.

To their credit, some journalists expressed outrage that Harris' looks had become a major topic of public debate. L.A. Times columnist Mike Downey (11/22/00) compared the abuse to media personalities' mean-spirited savaging of Janet Reno's height, Monica Lewinsky's weight, Hillary Rodham Clinton's legs, Paula Jones' nose and Linda Tripp's body. "Why are only women fair game?" Downey asked. "I don't hear a lot of comedians saying on TV: 'And then did you see what that bald-headed Bill Daley did?'" This sort of media treatment may be a barrier to women vying for office, Downey wrote: "Wonder why more women don't run for president? How would you like your physical appearance ridiculed seven days a week, for four to eight years?"

The St. Louis Post-Dispatch editorialized (11/22/00), "Amazing how quickly the nation's anger over a frustrating election morphed into a full-scale attack on one woman's appearance.... Sophomoric cracks about [Harris'] appearance should be out of bounds. Criticize her for how she applies herself to her job, not how she applies her mascara."

A Girlish lady

Too bad the "newspaper of record" didn't learn from this advice. When George W. Bush tapped foreign policy expert Condoleeza Rice to be the first female National Security Advisor, a front-page New York Times story (12/18/00) reported that "her dress size is between a 6 and an 8... because of 'muscle mass.'"

Times reporter Elaine Sciolino also felt compelled to mention that Rice has a "girlish laugh and gushes of Southern charm" and "can be utterly captivating -- without ever appearing confessional or vulnerable." At times the piece read like a game of "one of these facts is not like the other":

"She eats either a bagel or cereal every day for breakfast. She is always impeccably dressed, usually in a classic suit with a modest hemline, comfortable pumps and conservative jewelry. She keeps two mirrors on her desk at Stanford, apparently to check the back as well as the front of her hair. ('I do try to make sure everything is in place,' she explained.) She has an oil supertanker named after her, a result of being on the Chevron Corporation board."

It is significant that the woman chosen to shape American foreign policy has direct ties to a company implicated in serious human rights abuses overseas (Democracy Now!, 9/30/98). The newsworthiness in Rice's bagel breakfasts, sensible shoes and haircare regimen is harder to discern.

Salon.com's Fiona Morgan (12/18/00) found the "retrograde gender imagery" laced throughout the Times' profile "shocking." As Morgan noted, "We read nothing about her experience and positions on national security until the story's 27th paragraph, not quite the very end." But the Times did find space to quote Colin Powell in the 14th paragraph, reflecting that "Condi was raised first and foremost to be a lady," and to tell us in the 16th paragraph that her father "still calls his daughter 'little star.'"

Discussing the Times' treatment of Rice on CNN's Reliable Sources (12/23/00), pundit Jack Germond said, "Well, you know, I'm not notoriously sensitive. But even I when I read that thought, 'What a thing to do.' What you're not going to do is, you're not going to describe Colin Powell [that way]. How many mirrors does Colin Powell have? I don't know."

You Are What You Wear

Media coverage that trivializes women in politics is certainly outrageous, but it is far from new. Condoleeza Rice is not the only record-breaking woman in politics to be noted for her dress size. Reporting from the 1984 Democratic convention (7/18/84), NBC's Tom Brokaw referred to Geraldine Ferraro as "the first woman to be nominated for vice president -- size 6!" Earlier that year, when the Democrats were first flirting with the notion of a woman on the top ticket, the Washington Post reported, "Ferraro lost 25 pounds on a careful diet, down from a size 10 to a 6."

In the 15 years since the news informed us of Ferraro's diet techniques, Americans have grown more accustomed to and respectful of women in the political realm. Media are still catching up. Journalists are obsessed with cutting political women down to size, whether elected to office or propelled by marriage into the peculiar role of first lady.

A search of the Nexis database turns up no essential details about Dick Cheney's inseam or the length of Trent Lott's trousers -- but it does reveals that before she became senator, Hillary Rodham Clinton "whittled her figure down to a fighting size 8" by "touching little more than a lettuce leaf during fund-raisers" (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 6/4/00). The incoming first lady was also praised by the New York Daily News (1/1/01) for her minimal appetite: "Laura Bush apparently isn't the type to reach for the Haagen-Dazs when the going gets tough. During the 36 days of Indecision 2000, she kept her hands out of the cookie jar and didn't gain any weight." Perhaps it's this restraint that keeps Mrs. Bush "a curvaceous size 8" who "maintains her weight beautifully" (Washington Post, 1/8/01). First daughters Jenna and Barbara Bush are "size 6 sisters" (Los Angeles Times, 1/8/01), Katherine Harris "wears a size 2" (New York Times, 2/5/01), Tipper Gore resembles "a barrel shape, though she's only between a size 8 and 10" (San Francisco Chronicle, 1/22/97) and former Attorney General Janet Reno's "dress size is 'rangy'" (Chicago Tribune, 7/7/94).

Often gendered descriptors appear out of nowhere in hard news articles, with no apparent purpose beyond reminding readers that a politician is female. Reflecting on Hillary Rodham Clinton's senatorial victory, the New York Times' national desk ("First Lady's Race for the Ages: 62 Counties and 6 Pantsuits," 11/8/00) painted a strangely patriarchal image of an early campaign moment between the candidate and "Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the retiring institution, who walked her down the road to a gauntlet of press like a father giving away a bride."

When Ruth Ann Minner was sworn in as Delaware's first female governor in January, an A-section New York Times story (1/4/01) described her as "stopping well short of tears" as she thanked the crowd. Had Ruth Ann's first name been Richard, it is unlikely the Times would have found it necessary to mention that the governor managed not to cry during his speech. Just as incongruous was a front-page story about Arizona's 1998 gubernatorial race (Arizona Republic, 11/1/98) that opened with this description of the incumbent Gov. Jane Hull's arrival at a campaign stop: "A grandmotherly redhead dressed in a sensible suit climbs out of the back seat and strolls into the hotel."

Quantifying the Double Standard

In an online analysis for Women's Enews (11/29/00), Caryl Rivers explained this phenomenon as "an unspoken fact of media life: Men's appearance is almost always unremarkable and unremarked upon, while women's is nearly always to be remarked upon, often to the exclusion of other qualities."

In a study called "Framing Gender on the Campaign Trail: Women's Executive Leadership and the Press" (10/99), the Women's Leadership Fund (WLF) quantified this double standard. After evaluating how several statewide races were reported in 350 stories in nine major dailies, WLF found that while male and female gubernatorial candidates received about the same amount of coverage, "newspapers paid more attention to female candidates' personal characteristics, such as their age, personality and attire," while they "received less coverage outlining where they stood on public policy issues."

Additionally, WLF found that reporters quoted male and female candidates differently. "Because male candidates were more likely than were female candidates to be quoted supporting their claims -- whether it be justifications for welfare reform or a defense of current education policy -- they may have appeared more informed and qualified," the study concluded. The only exception WLF found to this practice occurred when two women, Democrat Patty Murray and Republican Linda Smith, competed for a Washington Senate seat.

As widespread as it is regressive, pigeonholing of political women has significant consequences to female leadership. By focusing so consistently on irrelevant personal, gender-specific details about female security advisors, attorneys general and congressmembers, media outlets imply that they are "ladies" first, major political players second.

SIDEBAR: Not Sexism? Not Likely

Just as an outcry began to arise over unfair media coverage of Katherine Harris, several outlets went out of their way to rationalize or dismiss complaints of a double standard. The New York Times (12/3/00) consulted evolutionary psychologists to explain the media's spotlight on Harris' looks as a function of biology, not bias. "Appearance rules," reporter Janny Scott wrote; that "simple truth" is "how the brain works." According to Scott, this isn't a double standard at all, since "not only women but also men" are affected.

Time reporter Karen Tumulty (CNN's Reliable Sources, 12/23/00) offered a similar argument about the New York Times' "modest hemline" profile of Condoleeza Rice (12/18/00): "Let's face it. I mean, we can no longer say this is just sexist when every suit change that Al Gore made in the last campaign, his makeup for the first debate, engendered all sorts of comments. So I don't think you can quite pull the sexism."

In a media climate in which Saturday Night Live sketches and clips from Letterman approximate political commentary on news shows, all politicians face an increased amount of superficiality, regardless of gender. But men's balding heads, beer bellies, wrinkled jowls and decades-old suits are generally spared intense journalistic scrutiny. Certainly male politicians' attire or appearance are rarely the news peg for an entire story -- unlike a Larry King Live (6/1/99) panel discussion about whether Hillary Rodham Clinton could be an impressive campaigner for the Senate despite being "bottom heavy" with a "bad figure." (Extra!Update, 8/99).

One notable exception was the widespread ribbing Al Gore received after he paid neo-feminist Naomi Wolf to beef up his image as an "alpha male." For the first time in recent political memory, the news was dominated for several days by journalists lashing into a male legislator's wardrobe and make-up. The talk show circuit and the op-ed pages teemed with sarcastic jibes implying that Gore was somehow feminine (e.g., "Feminist Wears the Pants on Team Gore," New York Post, 11/1/99) -- unfortunately still an insult in the media and in politics.

Articles attacking Gore for placing an emphasis on his appearance only served to reinforce the differing expectations media have for male and female politicians. One New York Times article (11/21/99) quoted evolutionary psychologist Lionel Tiger as insisting that "when a candidate has to be told what kind of trousers to wear is when you realize that this is an insane system." The Times went on to elaborate on Tiger's theories that "male dominance is vital to social stability." Almost a year later, Times columnist Maureen Dowd (10/25/00) was still referring to "the spectacle of a woman instructing a man how to be a man."

Journalists who rationalize away the stereotyping of Harris, Condoleeza Rice and others as equal-opportunity frivolity might try to imagine Andrea Peyser's satirical description of Gore team lawyer David Boies (New York Post, 12/5/00), modeled after the Washington Post's "who would trust her?" profile of Harris, as an actual newspaper article: "Boies' pallid cheeks were marred with curious eruptions that resembled nothing so much as dimpled chads.... His off-the-rack suits and knit ties [are a] style meant for the anonymity of the office, not a national television audience.... How can we trust that a man as slipshod in his daily toilet as David Boies will exercise due authority when it comes to our lives?"

Of course, this type of description of David Boies would never be considered journalism. So why is it acceptable when the news subject is female? Reporters and editors should use their sense of fairness (and their common sense) before embarrassing their outlets by measuring political women by their measurements.

Jennifer L. Pozner is Women's Desk Director (www.fair.org/womens-desk.html) for the national media watchdog group FAIR - Fairness & Accuracy In Reporting. She can be reached at jpozner@fair.org. This article appeared in the March/April 2001 issue of FAIR's magazine, Extra! (www.fair.org/extra/index.html).