As I was listening to NPR today, I noticed something for the second time in as many days: Today, it was a male reporter describing Gabrielle Giffords’ appearance in front of Congress in which she was advocating gun control with the words, “Too many children are dying. Too many children.” The way he introduced the clip was to say, “Former Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords appeared in front of Congress today, wearing a [smart gray] suit…”
That “smart gray” part is in brackets ’cause I don’t remember exactly how he described what she was wearing because I DON’T GIVE A DAMN. She was actually wearing a salmon-colored top in the clip I saw, but I remembered him saying “gray”, I thought… probably because my brain had a little rage-seizure as soon as I heard it.
Yesterday, a female reporter was describing Hillary Clinton’s appearance in front of the House Foreign Affairs Committee — the brilliant episode in which she just ripped apart the guys trying to tear her down, and which spawned this fabulous series of gifs: How to Deal with a Mansplainer* — and the reporter was describing the context for the clip in which Clinton said, “With all due respect, we had four dead Americans. Was it because of a protest or was it because of guys out for a walk who decided they’d go kill Americans? What difference at this point does it make? It is our job to figure out what happened.” In giving this context, the reporter felt the need to describe what Clinton was wearing.
I listened closely to the reports surrounding these examples, thinking, “Maybe I’m just being overly-sensitive. Maybe they describe men’s outfits, too?” I was trying to remember a time I’d heard, “Senator Kerry appeared in the confirmation hearing in a dark gray wool suit and blue tie”, but I really couldn’t. Maybe they’d do it if men’s business attire were as … un-standardized (?) as women’s? I mean, how many ways can you describe the same two-piece suit, right?
But I’m not sure that would change anything. I think it speaks to something more insidious: an internalized, subconscious, completely sexist desire to judge women on the basis of their appearance instead of on their words or behavior… or anything relevant to the story. It’s no different from saying, “I saw this black guy come into the shop the other day, and…” when the person’s race has no bearing on the subsequent anecdote; why mention it if it’s inconsequential?
We do the same thing with female actors in a way that really doesn’t happen to male actors. I particularly like this evaluation of The Audacity of Lena Dunham in which the author describes how the media feels that Dunham “inflicts” her “blobby body” on our poor, disgusted eyes. (I don’t yet watch Girls, but the article made me want to, just ’cause Dunham sounds pretty fabulous.)
I think we should start bringing it to the attention of the folks who are doing it. If I mention someone’s haircut before I mention her politics, I want to be aware of what I’m doing. We need to take the small, internal steps — each of us — to eradicate sexist tendencies from our speech and subsequently our thinking. I just wrote the NPR Ombudsman about it, and I would encourage you, if you notice it, to bring it to the attention of the organization in which it occurred.
* I don’t particularly like the term “mansplaining”, ’cause it strikes me as sexist in the opposite direction. One could as easily say “nerdsplaining”, which is where I often encounter the phenomenon… or even “jerksplaining”.