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Hillary’s Hair: More newsworthy than the Summit of the Americas?

jpozners Icon Posted by Jennifer L Pozner

April 16th, 2012

With the popular Texts from Hillary Tumblr highlighting the Secretary of State’s emerging cool factor (the subject of a fun “Melissa Harris-Perry” segment Sunday), there’s no questioning the news value of yesterday’s Daily Mail story built around a photo of Hillary Clinton dancing the night away in a Havana cafe after the Sixth Summit of the Americas.

One of the most powerful leaders in the world letting loose on a Colombian dancefloor? Yes, please. And, yet…

If the world leader blowing off steam in Havana had been named Harold rather than Hillary, would the Daily Mail have belabored superfluous, gendered details such as the following — in the fourth and fifth sentences, no less?:

The former United States Senator for New York had ditched her trademark scrunchie and let her hair loose, opting for a more laid back look.

Mrs Clinton, who is normally a fan of two-piece suits, was pictured in a casual black dress, which she teamed with chunky jewellery.

Or, on the exceedingly unlikely chance that the paper would’ve reported a male president or military chief’s bald-spot-hiding combover, his preference for pleats verses flat-front trousers, and his choice of cufflinks, such trivialities would undoubtedly have appeared after the jump, as throw-away filler toward the end of the piece. But blinded as it was by the Secretary of State’s gender, the Daily Mail treated Clinton’s clothing, hair and accessories as way more significant than the substance of the Summit that brought her to Colombia, or the fact that the gathering was rocked by violence (which was briefly mentioned only after the all-important news about Hill’s scrunchy rejection):

Leaders from the Western Hemisphere met in Cartagena to discuss the ongoing economic and political ties between the states of North and South America.

The summit, which is today drawing to a close, was interrupted by three explosions - possibly set off by left-wing guerrillas - on Friday.

Yes, this was a lighthearted lifestyle story centered on a fluffy moment when a buttoned-up politician shows a more casual side. There’s nothing journalistically wrong with that. But even in soft news stories like this, media obsession over female pols’ appearance and attire perpetuates a pernicious double standard that, over time, devalues women’s leadership in the collective consciousness of readers. This has political consequences, as I’ve written again and again and again since the 1990s, as I discussed in the award-winning OWN documentary, “Miss Representation” and as I’ve explained in various media literacy lectures and workshops at dozens of colleges, high schools and conferences over the past decade. (Sample lecture titles on this subject: “When Anchormen Attack,” “Condoleezza Rice is a Size 6 & Other Useless Things I Learned from the News,” “White Male Electile Dysfunction: Gender, Race and the Media in Election 2008.”)

When media treat women like ladies first and leaders a distant second (if ever), it deters women from seeking office in the first place, dissuades citizens from voting for women when they do run, and lessens their efficacy in office once they are elected.

Now, a fluff story like this is not as wildly inappropriate or as damaging as, say, news host Donny Deutsch going on CNBC during the 2008 election cycle to say that GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin was finally an acceptable “woman in power” because “men want to mate with her” and “I want her laying next to me in bed,” while musing that Hillary Clinton lost the Democratic presidential nomination because “she didn’t put a skirt on.” And of course this Daily Mail piece pales in comparison to the vitriolic misogyny that marked coverage of then-Senator Clinton during that same election cycle by both Fox News’s Sean Hannity (who ran a litany of superficial, gendered attacks on her, which he proudly referred to as the “Stop Hillary Express”) and MSNBC’s Chris Matthews (who crowed on “Hardball” about how he “hates” Hillary, branding her an “uppity,” “witchy,” “scolding,” “anti-male,” “she-devil” who can “grate on some men” like “fingernails on a blackboard,” and even Photoshopped a pair of devil’s horns over her photo on air). And yes, it was much worse when, on the day in the 2000 when President George W. Bush tapped Condoleezza Rice to become the first female National Security Advisor, the New York Times introduced her to the American public by reporting that “her dress size is between a 6 and an 8,” that she has a “girlish laugh and gushes of Southern charm” and “can be utterly captivating — without ever appearing confessional or vulnerable” — while giving us hardly any details at all about her security expertise.

So, yes, I know that this story isn’t the worst of the lot. I’ve analyzed, called attention to and created action alerts about much more explicitly sexist hard news stories about women in politics over several decades. Why, then, am I posting about this obnoxious story pegged to a (frankly awesome) picture of Hillary getting down with her bad self in Colombia?

Simple: whenever female politicians are targeted by the press in explicitly gendered, trivializing ways, it is always inappropriate, it is always problematic, and it always deserves critique. Political sexism shouldn’t get a pass simply because it shows up in the lifestyle or style section.

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