SEXISM AUGUST 5, 2013
Everyone should read my colleague Noreen Malone's smart take on The New York Times's overlong but still empty Katharine Weymouth profile in Sunday's Style section. Noreen took issue with this description of Weymouth, the publisher of The Washington Post, in the Times story:
Ms. Weymouth’s penchant for showing off her athletic figure — she arrived for a photo shoot in a crisp white sleeveless sheath and four-inch lime green Jimmy Choos — provokes titters in the newsroom. Then again, she works hard for it; Ms. Elkin said the two spend Sunday mornings doing free weights and "boy push-ups" with a personal trainer.
To which Noreen adds, convincingly:
In a word: judgment. The author, Sheryl Gay Stolberg, theoretically pushes the raised eyebrows off to Weymouth's employees, all of whom, supposedly, are laughing at the fact that their boss chooses not to drape herself in a roomy tent each morning before work. This is not remotely sourced/attributed to anyone specific, it should be noted. But the description of what Weymouth wore to her photoshoot is what irritated me more than the newsroom sniping. Wouldn't you want to look your best if you were being photographed for a national publication? And if you were being profiled in the Style section—unlike, say, the Media section, where you might have landed coverage had your gonads made you male—wouldn't you also want to break out your most killer shoes?
I asked a friend, a woman who write frequently about gender issues, if she'd found the paragraphs as surprising as I had. She didn't, and cited Paul Ryan as a ready cognate. Didn't many profiles of him contain discussions of his gym-rat ways and pretty eyes? Sure they did, I acknowledged. But does anyone really think less of Ryan for his PX-90 obsession? Men who work out are presumed to be obsessed with strength, an admirable preoccupation. Women who display similar predilections are assumed to be worried about fitting into "crisp white sleeveless sheath[s]," no matter if the pushups they do are "boy" or "girl." Until that changes, there are instances (far from automatic) in which describing a woman's attire is undermining, and upsetting.
The question is whether it's the media's job to account for their readers' sexism. Sure, people may view Paul Ryan differently because he is a man, and judge him less than they would a woman in the same situation. But should this alter news coverage? Let's say a newspaper reporter hears many accounts that a Jewish tycoon is greedy. Should they not report this because a few anti-Semites will see their predjudices confirmed? Or should they write about this tycoon in the same manner that they write about Donald Trump? The former seems like dangerous territory for the press.
Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.