The Femo: What women wear

by Sarah Rubin

In early December, I happened upon an article tweeted by one of my favorite political science professors at Brown. In the throes of my most intense homesickness in Italy, I clicked on the link, nostalgic for some semblance of my normal routine and eager to see what kind of wisdom she was imparting to the world that day.

I was surprised at what I found: The article was a short piece by the political blogger Froma Harrop called “Meet the Undressed: Newswomen on TV” on Real Clear Politics. Unlike most of this professor’s political Twitter repertoire, this article was not about the fiscal cliff or congressional negotiations, but instead a critical look at the styling and wardrobe of “serious” female political figures, and the reopening of a feminist dialogue that I was surprised to see still relevant.

Harrop’s article critiques a recent broadcast of “Meet the Press” and the clothing of guests Andrea Mitchell, a renowned television anchor and journalist, and Carly Fiorina, a high-powered business executive and former candidate for the U.S. Senate. According to Harrop, Mitchell and Fiorina’s cocktail dresses and “bare arms” featured on the broadcast were a means of flaunting their sexuality to attract viewers, while simultaneously diminishing their ability to be taken seriously. In her view, their clothes and makeup made them appear inherently inferior to their male counterparts, and while the male participants in the show seemed comfortably dressed and sufficiently professional, Fiorina and Mitchell were forced to wear “movement-inhibiting shoes” and outfits aimed to exploit their female sexuality for public attention.

The issue of physical appearance for women involved in the political world has been widely discussed since the rise of the Women’s Rights Movement in the U.S. American media outlets notoriously scrutinize the physical attributes and clothing of female political candidates. A notable example is that of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, whose clothes, hairstyle, and makeup (or lack thereof) are not an uncommon topic of discussion. In a famous 2010 interview, a moderator asked Clinton “which designers of clothes [she preferred],” to which she retorted, “Would you ever ask a man that question?” Clinton’s reaction to the interviewer’s focus on a stereotypically “feminine” topic leads to the question: Why are we still talking about what these women wear? Is it even still relevant?

The answer, according to the American media, is yes. And Harrop’s interpretation of the issue is not the only one that has been recently published about the styling of female reporters, anchors, and politicians. In a Forbes interview, Robb Young, the author of “Power Dressing: First Ladies, Women Politicians, and Fashion,” cites the ability of females in power to express their femininity through a wider range of acceptable clothing. According to this argument, an increasing number of powerful women are dressing like Fiorina and Mitchell because they “no longer feel the need to blend in with the boys.” At the root of this theory is the belief that women have gained enough equality in the media and political world that they can still be taken seriously when wearing more casual or feminine clothing. As such, women no longer need to wear three-piece suits to exert their professional or intellectual power — a belief that Harrop calls “a crock.”

It can be argued that Harrop’s criticism of female styling is one of an older generation, an outdated argument that has been surpassed by the acceptance of females in the public eye and the widespread belief that femininity can coexist with professional respect. That being said, Harrop’s perspective proposes that producers of our news outlets are not dressing these women down because they think they will still be viewed with respect, but because they think that is perhaps the only way they will be viewed at all.

We all know which reasoning we would prefer.


photo of Andrea Mitchell by Ava Lowery: