Media Message: Judge a Woman By the Height of Her Shoes, not the Height of her Character
August 8, 2012 by Whitney Zahnd
With the Olympics in full swing, one author at the Boston’s Metro.us posited an intriguing question, what if all Olympics sports were photographed like women’s beach volleyball? The author noted that he had performed a Getty image search for women’s beach volleyball. He found that overwhelmingly, the photos were of the women’s rear ends, not an action shot of a player making a dig or block. He then posted a photo essay of similarly cropped photos of male athletes—gymnast’s rear ends and diver’s torsos–noting the awkwardness of those photos (See here). The female athletes were photographed to highlight their physical appearance and sex appeal, not their athletic ability.
Similarly, there seems to be a difference in the way that female politicians are both photographed and written about as well. It begs the question, what if male politicians were photographed and written about the same way that female politicians are? Too often female politicians’ physical traits are highlighted while their policy positions and experience are minimized. In 2007, then Senator Hillary Clinton famously spoke on the Senate floor and her blouse revealed a little bit of cleavage:
That incident provided not only late night fodder, but the basis an entire article the Washington Post about Senator Clinton’s cleavage and overall style. The article was 12 paragraphs long, and only one sentence even touched on the policy issue she was discussing.
Late last year, Congressman Barney Frank spoke on a the House floor wearing a not-so-flattering shirt:
To be sure, this incident became fodder for the political blogosphere, but it certainly didn’t become mainstream media frenzy that Hillary Clinton’s cleavage appearance did.
In 2008, much ado was made about vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s appearance–her glasses, her clothes, her shoes. In fact, this photo of her shoes in the foreground and a young male supporter in the background accompanied was an image captured by both AP and Reuters photographers:
What if multiple photographers decided to make Vice President Joe Biden’s legs and shoes the subject of their shot?
Of course, this image was not the subject of a photographer. It was an image that I had to crop myself, and it was difficult to even find an image that wasn’t a head shot of the vice president or from the torso up. There certainly weren’t any photos of the Vice President’s legs in the foreground and a young woman in the background:
Earlier this election season, Congresswoman Michele Bachmann appeared on the cover of Newsweek with this bizarre, wide-eyed expression (not to mention biased, sexist title):
For photo shoots, many pictures are taken and with today’s technology can be immediately checked digitally for closed eyes and other imperfections. Why was this photo chosen of likely the dozens that were taken? Certainly a photo like the one below of President Obama never made its way onto a major news magazine:
Pictures are often worth a thousand words. They speak volumes about how the photographer, writer, or editor is trying to portray a politician–as a competent leader, a sex object, a crazy person, etc. However, focusing on a women’s style over her substance isn’t limited to photos. Washington Post writer Diana Reese used her platform at the Post’s “She the People” feature to criticize Sarah Palin’s clothes at a recent campaign rally/BBQ for Missouri Senatorial candidate Sarah Steelman:
When Palin took to the makeshift stage in the middle of a Missouri farm field, she was dressed more for the part of Hollywood celebrity than serious politician. I know someone’s going to remind me that just last week, I said it was sexist to focus on the wardrobes of women in politics.
But it was hard for me to take Palin seriously dressed as she was.
First, her shoes: Five-inch wedges. Her black capris weren’t quite skin-tight but tight enough, and her t-shirt with its Superman logo (a Steelman campaign shirt emblazoned with “Our freedom. Our fight.”) emphasized her figure. She never once removed her oversized sunglasses.
I’m sorry, but I’d like my minister, my doctor and yes, my politicians, to look and dress for their parts.
Palin stumped for Steelman at an event that took place at a blueberry farm and delievered her speech from a trailer that can be attached to a truck. It wasn’t a flashy event, and Governor Palin is known for her down home appeal. The candidate herself, Sarah Steelman, was dressed in jeans and boots herself. It was a very Midwestern, down-to-earth event. It wasn’t a big dollar fundraiser at a fancy location. Palin wore one of the campaign’s t-shirts– standing in solidarity with the Steelman campaign workers who were also wearing “Superman” ( man of steel–Steelman, get it?) shirts. Additionally, it was a hot, sunny evening, and Palin usually wears glasses. Was Palin supposed to wear her normal glasses the whole time and squint or take her prescription sunglasses off and not be able to see? Governor Palin gave a very solid stump speech focusing on Steelman’s plans if she was elected and noting her reformer credentials. All of these were apparently lost on Reese. She decided, as she notes in this piece, that she should call out sexism about the cost of a female political figure’s clothes if it’s Michelle Obama, but also apply a different standard to Palin by criticizing Palin’s choice of clothing at a low key, Midwestern campaign event.
Women can’t expect their counterparts in the media–be they writers, editors, or photographers–to stop being sexist in their portrayal of female politicians when they themselves focus more on the height of a political figure’s shoes than the height of her character or the weight of her words. As depicted above, the media’s sexist portrayal of women is bipartisan. In order to counter that, it would behoove all women to make sure the voice against sexism is a bipartisan one as well.