How The Media Perpetuates Sexism in Politics: The Hillary Clinton Double Standard
I am stunned that given all the important issues discussed at the U.N. General Assembly this week, some in the media are still harping on Secretary Clinton’s hair clip. I wrote about this last week but then I ran across this post and what struck me about it was a) it appears in Forbes (as opposed to, say, the NY Daily News or E Online, b) It’s written by a woman and c) it totally misses the point.
Here are some excerpts:
Now, a meeting of the world’s leaders doesn’t typically inspire much wardrobe analysis, unless Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi or some another eccentrically dressed despot shows up. But the sartorial critics’ claws came out when U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton arrived to the General Assembly Monday wearing a vibrant cobalt blue suit and–quelle horreur–a plastic butterfly clip in her hair.
“Oh Hillary, that hairstyle just doesn’t cut it,” bemoaned the U.K.’s Daily Mail. “The secretary of state’s chic coif was nowhere to be seen as she arrived at the United Nations over the weekend with her hair clipped back,” opined The Daily News. The Daily Mirror compared Clinton’s hairdo to soccer player David Beckham’s. One blog headline perhaps summed it up best: “Hillary Clinton’s Hair Clip Fail.”
Is Clinton’s hair clip really that offensive? Should we care about what a politician or leader wears? And would we ever have such a media uproar over a male’s outfit?
The answers are actually much more complex than appears on the surface. Yes, comparing Clinton to Beckham and making fun of her “lank locks” is unnecessarily catty, and the fact that much of the snide comments appeared in right-leaning publications makes them seem even more mean-spirited. But arguing that she has better things to do than worry about her hair or that such discussions about her appearance are sexist–while no doubt true–misses the big picture.
Clinton is a public figure, and as with any public figure she must dress the part–and dress professionally. She was meeting with many important global leaders to speak about very important issues such as offering support to Pakistan and Haiti. Her less-than-perfect hair was not the issue, it was that she adorned it with a a silver butterfly clip–an accessory most commonly worn by middle- and high-school girls. The accessory lacked the gravitas required of the event and of the topics Clinton was there to discuss. Can you imagine if President Barack Obama showed up for a meeting with a clip-on bowtie? Or with brightly colored sneakers? [emphasis added]
Actually, that’s almost the entire commentary. Where to begin? How about we begin with the fact that the author seems to think that by wearing a hair clip some didn’t like, Secretary Clinton’s message regarding the state of world affairs was somehow diminished. That’s ridiculous. Am I really supposed to believe that a woman’s hairstyle is more important than the work she does, or her competence etc.? I think that we all understand that for better or worse, appearances matter, but the notion that Secretary Clinton does not look 100% professional all the time just doesn’t stand up to scrutiny, hair clip or no hair clip.
Secretary Clinton always looks professional. The addition of one accessory some people don’t like does not alter that. To compare Secretary Clinton’s outfit to President Obama showing up at the UN with brightly colored sneakers is ridiculous. And for the record, who the hell cares if someone wears a clip-on bow tie? That women politicians are held to a totally different standard regarding what they wear and how they look is an issue that the author ignores altogether- her only quasi-attempt is the ridiculous example about Obama and sneakers that I just highlighted. She also doesn’t address the fact that for some reason, the media reaction to Hillary Clinton’s hair and clothes has been an unhealthy obsession for over a decade now. Why is that? The author doesn’t tell us.
The fact of the matter is that we largely don’t care what male politicians wear, unless the media believes that the men in question don’t conform with our rigid gender norms- for example John Edwards’ obsessing over his hair. Clearly the media thought that Edwards was being just a bit too feminine although some commentators tried to couch it in terms of cost, but that rationale doesn’t really fly given a lot of wealthy male politicians probably spend tons of money on suits, hair cuts etc.
Here is another example. My Congressional representative is the wonderful Barney Frank. I like Frank a lot and I agree with him on a lot of issues. Have you ever noticed that on any given day Barney Frank looks like he slept in his suit and just rolled out of bed and went to work? Who cares? Not me. It’s sort of his trademark. The only person that apparently cares is his sister Ann Lewis, who chastised him prior to his speech at the No Limits event last year for not tucking in his shirt tails. But have the media ever alleged that Frank’s sometimes disheveled look diminishes his work or overall message? Of course not. Have they ever called him unprofessional? No.
Another example- unfortunately, my new Senator is Scott Brown. Can you imagine if a woman had posed almost completely naked for a magazine prior to running for office? Now granted, he has not posed naked for a magazine since becoming Senator- at least not yet, but when the media discussed Brown’s centerfold spread prior to his election to office, it was almost like they admired him for it. Had it been a woman do you really think they would have taken her seriously as a candidate? Personally, I don’t give a damn about the centerfold myself- I care more about where he stands on issues- but I think there is a glaring double standard at work here.
Look at how Michelle Obama is treated regarding her clothes. I will defend any First Lady, Republican or Democrat, against the media’s sexist scrutiny because lets be honest, they go after any First Lady who doesn’t conform with their idea of what a Good Presidential Wife should look, act or sound like. We saw that with Hillary Clinton in the 90’s. We saw it again when mostly male members of the media and the conservative blogosphere
Ok, back to that stupid commentary above. The author of the commentary doesn’t seem to understand is that if anything was a distraction this week it wasn’t Secretary Clinton’s hair clip, it was the media’s incessant need to focus on shit that just doesn’t matter in order to generate controversy, “buzz” and headlines (and thus traffic to their websites). We would be a much more informed electorate if the media, instead of criticizing Secretary Clinton’s hair, focused on the daily work she does to advance U.S. foreign policy and diplomacy. But then again, maybe the media doesn’t want a more informed electorate, after all, it would make their job all the more difficult.
ps. If you haven’t seen this, it’s was an interesting father daughter correspondence regarding the media sexism used against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 primaries. What makes it interesting is the father is a media commentator and his daughter is a lawyer who was upset at how dismissive her father was about the media’s sexism during the campaign and her father’s role in perpetuating it.