Thursday, July 26, 2007

Washington Post: Women Wear Clothes. No! Really?

I think this is going to have to be a regular feature here: Tracking the number of times the Washington Post reporters feel fit to describe what a female politician is wearing but not anyone else. Especially when such descriptions add nothing to the story.

Today’s example, Dana Milbank in his Washington Sketch column. He’s describing the debate in the House about citing Alberto Gonzales with contempt of Congress.

Alternatively, history may choose to focus on the words of Conyers himself, who suspected foul play when Rep. Loretta Sanchez (Calif.), the Democrats' point woman on the contempt matter, discovered that her microphone wasn't working. "We'll have to have that investigated to see if it's pure accident," Conyers proposed to Sanchez, who, resplendent in a black outfit with silver sparkles, shifted to her neighbor's microphone.
Maybe this little nugget seems harmless. But Milbank doesn’t describe any other politician’s dress in the article. He doesn’t write “Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), looking fully Texan in a black suit and wingtips.” Nor does knowing Loretta Sanchez wore black with silver sparkles add anything to “scene” he was setting.

So why did he add that little detail. Other readers can interpret it differently but I think Milbank is demeaning Sanchez. I think some corner of his mind thought her outfit ostentatious and wanted to call attention to it. In doing so he’s attempting, in a small way, to disparage Sanchez. “Look she’s wearing silver sparkles!”

It’s a small thing, but it grates. I doubt Milbank even notices how he treated Sanchez differently from Gohmert or Chairman John Conyers in his column.

UPDATE: I e-mailed the Washington Post Ombudsman Deborah Howell a slightly modified version of this post. (I didn't tell her I was a blogger. She doesn't like bloggers and would probably discount my point if she had known.)

Unexpectedly she wrote me back.

I'll send this to him. He probably did it because her clothing stood out and others did not. -- Deborah

I wrote her back saying:
I'm sure that *is* what he is going to say. But the concept of "male clothing" being unremarkable but female clothing being always a point of interest is a HUGE issue when covering female politicians and tricky onewithout having a double-standard for men and women. Of course men like Milbank probably thinks Conyers clothing is unremarkable. Maybe though another person (say a woman) would have thought Sanchez' clothing wasn't any less unremarkable. Milbank is sort of defining 'normality' of dress inhis mind through his writing. He need to watch it though. Otherwise he willbe putting a double-standard to his subjects by defining what he perceivesis "correct" fashion worth noting.
To which she responded:
I've seen male dress noted in his column on a number of occasions. I watch for that sort of thing.


Anonymous said...

I agree with you 100%. And I don't think it is a small thing, either. And what was up with Edwards mentioning Hill's coat at the debate? This is not unlike the idiots at Olbermann's show commenting that Sen. Vitter's wife looked like a prostitute.

Plus, Milbank is a self-promoting ass who thinks HE is part of the story.

Jim in Cleveland

NewsCat said...

I used to like Milbank when he was covering the 2000 election. I think he thought of himself as smaller then. But now 7 years, a couple of books, and time spent on TV and I think he's grown in his own estimation. In short, I like his reporting a lot less.

I meant to "compare and constrast" to another article deeper inside the paper that pretty much covered the same ground. House Panel Backs Citing Bush Aides for Contempt by Dan Eggen and Paul Kane pretty much covers the exact same story and proceedings as Milbank's, but minus the "colorful" commentary.

Milbank is a columnist and on some level he's supposed to provide more "entertaining" news stories than the rest of the section. But it's helpful to show what the other reporters, from the same paper, wrote about the scene.

As for Edwards and Hillary's coat. I actually don't think that was the same thing as what Milbank was doing. I know however of some women bloggers that disagree. But in my mind it's about place and context. It's not sexist to point out the obvious..."your jacket is pink." It's sexist when covering a scene to describe only what the women are wearing as if the men's outfits are unremarkable. (maybe they are..but by default wouldn't that also make the women's unremarkable).

Edwards was groping for something cute and clever to say that he "didn't" like about Hillary that wasn't actually a bad thing. He wasn't trying to deliberately put down Hillary for being a woman (other than what the questioner asked him to do).

And I don't think it was sexist to recognize, as my roommate and I did, that Hillary did stand out because she *could* where color and the men on the stage couldn't. There was a sense of "one of these things is not like the other."

It's not sexist to recognize someone is a woman. Place, context and even tone and body language contribute to how a remark on one's appearance and/or clothing is perceived. I'd like to add that I used to know an intern that thought ANYTIME a person commented about the physical appearance of another person they were "taking a risk" at offending them because "how I look is none of their damned business."

Anonymous said...

Agreed. I notice the difference between men and women all the time.

I only brought it up because I felt that the situation did not call for what he did. If Edwards is going to go the "aw-chucks, I'm a younger, better-coifed Matlock" route, then he should be called on it. He could, and perhaps should, have made a criticism of a policy issue she advocates. Bottom-line, though, it was a stupid question.

Annie said...

I thought the comment was a nice way to not really criticize her. I thought it was a cute comment, no biggie.