What She Wore: The Prevalence of Gender Bias in Reporting
Writing about fashion is not my style. Recently, however, I felt moved to write a critique of Marie Clare's November issue which took on the unique task of looking at the impact of militarism on women's lives from the point of view of fashion (lost an arm and a leg but can still wear 2-inch heels ...). I had devoutly hoped that would be the end of my career in fashion commentary, but those hopes were dashed by two recent articles about noteworthy women.
The first is an in-depth look at women to watch for in the House and Senate by Allison Stevens of Women's eNews. Refreshingly, the article contains not one itsy-bitsy bit of information about what these powerful women wear or what they look like. In a no-nonsense, just the facts and nothing but the facts, approach, Stevens delineates the roles of women like Barbara Lee and Lynn Woolsey, cochairs of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and Lois Capps, a possible cochair for both the Democratic Women's Working Group and the Congressional Caucus of Women's Issues. We also learn that Rep. Louise Slaughter and Sen. Diane Feinstein will chair the House and Senate Rules committees, and what the implications of these posts are for issues, such as the right to obtain an abortion.
Stevens does a fine job of demonstrating that in fact you can talk about the importance of women's lives without trivializing them by assuming you must mention their hairstyle or what they are wearing.
Not so the December issue of Esquire, which contains an article that takes a lengthy look at "five exceptional American women" who have done significant work that has received little attention. But hold the applause. This after all is a magazine with a long history of preferring to present women in a scantily clad light. So it is not surprising that the author of "The Women of America," John H. Richardson, is scrupulous in making sure that his readers really get the picture. The very first sentence of the article reads, "Naomi Halas is wearing a clingy green blouse with tight black pants and two-inch black pumps, looking as if she stepped off the set of a Pedro Almodovar movie."
This in what way relates to the fact that she invented nanoshells?
And then there is Doris Voitier, the school superintendent in St. Bernard Parish in Louisiana, who has done extraordinary work getting her schools back in business since Katrina, no thanks to FEMA. Richardson makes sure that we know that she is "a round woman in a lime-colored suit." How very illuminating.
But on to Rose Ann DeMoro, a California nurse who led the fight to lower nurse-patient ratios in California hospitals. Aren't you dying to know what she looks like? No problem, we get a description right in the first paragraph: "A woman in black pants and a yellow sweater."
When it comes to Patricia Mulroy, the general manager of the Las Vegas Valley Water District, we get the description before we even know her name, "a stylish older woman with short hair and discreet gold jewelry. That would be Patricia Mulroy." Richardson repeats the clothes-first, name-second structure with the last woman featured in the article, "a young woman in white slacks and a jean jacket" named Stephanie Herseth. Only then do we find out that she is a member of the United States Congress. Not once does Richardson refer to her as Congresswoman Herseth, she's just a young woman wearing white slacks and a denim jacket.
While the media occasionally offers us a description of how men of power appear, it is much more prevalent in the descriptions of women. If you doubt this, consider that within a week of the election, it was common knowledge that Nancy Pelosi digs Armani, but quick -- who is Harry Reid's favorite designer? Who knows and who cares.
It is unfortunate when the media continues, with all its damaging and misogynist implications, to insist by inclusion that what women wear or how they look is related to their capability. As Allison Stevens demonstrates, it is in fact possible to write about women and what they have accomplished without trivializing their empowerment by asserting such spurious connection. This is the standard to which journalism should be held in regard to gender.