When we wrote about what Texas state Senator Wendy Davis wore during her extraordinary 11-hour filibuster that blocked an anti-abortion bill in Texas last week (Erdem dress, hot pink Mizuno sneakers), we expected some backlash. We anticipated that some readers would think that commenting on what Davis wore would detract from her brave actions. Some did. “I know that this is a fashion site, but I DO think you have taken away from Senator Davis’s astonishing accomplishment by reducing it to a story about what she wore,” a commenter wrote. “Women are so much more than clothes hangers.”
Of course we are. But how we get dressed is part of how we communicate with the world; what we wear says a lot about who we are. So is it not ok then, to comment, to discuss, to analyze, what women politicians and public figures wear? Is it reductive and harmful? Or is the problem that male politicians aren’t subject to the same scrutiny?
Molly Bell over at The Atlantic tackled those questions in a piece titled “No, It’s Not Sexist to Describe Women Politicians’ Clothes” (so, you know where she stands).
Only it’s not an opinion piece.
Bell looks at two recent studies which examine whether descriptions of women politicians in the media hurt their chances at being elected: One, conducted by Name It Change It, found that “any mention of the woman candidate’s appearance was detrimental to voters’ opinions of her”; the other, conducted by two political scientists from American University and George Washington University, found that there was “no gender-based difference in how voters responded” to positive, neutral, and negative descriptions of candidates. Bell calls the Name It Change It study into question, noting that the descriptions the study used to test reactions weren’t “realistic representations of the way the media describes women candidates”–they were either dowdy or overly negative, she says. She concludes: “The evidence doesn’t support declaring any descriptive writing about female candidates off-limits… Journalists should be scrutinized for whether they’re covering women candidates fairly and seriously, but we shouldn’t be banned from noticing the carefully managed visual signals candidates of both sexes send. Sometimes, a skirt suit is just a skirt suit.”
As a site that only mentions female politicians if we’re talking about their clothes–we’re called Fashionista, after all–I sometimes worry whether gushing over Michelle Obama’s clothes or talking about Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits is harmful.
Lauren and I got into it yesterday.
“I do think that people talk less about what men wear,” Lauren said. “But they talk more about what men look like. As in, actual physical appearance. But then again, consider Anthony Weiner and his colorful pants.” [Ed. note: And remember the fixation on Paul Ryan’s abs and ill-fitting suits, or John Edwards’s spendy hair cuts?] “When a male politician wears jeans, it means his ‘people’ want him to seem accessible, approachable,” Lauren adds. “It all seems to be fair game.”
So when does it go too far, I wonder?
“Everything we do is through a fashion lens,” Lauren points out. “I think where it gets dicey is when a political reporter makes the clothes the angle.” Like a recent New York Times piece on Davis and her filibuster, which Wonkette noticed originally, which didn’t mention Davis by name until the 17th graf. Then the piece was amended to describe her as petite–and then that descriptor was removed, and Davis’s name was mentioned in the second graf.
But for us, fashion is merely a way into broader important issues. Lena Dunham got shit from her followers when she Instagrammed a photo of Wendy Davis noting that she was wearing Erdem, and that that fact was “Yet another reason to love Wendy.” Some faulted Dunham for focusing on Davis’s clothes. But some of them didn’t know who Davis was. And now they do. As one commenter wrote on this site, “Whatever gets people talking about it. It allows the story to reach more people by talking about what she wore.”
After all, “Fashion informs the masses,” Lauren reminds me.