The list of things I could write about today is endless, but the nice part of having your own blog is that you only write what you’re moved to write. And Wendy Davis, man, that woman moved me! Leticia Van de Putte moved me! I never would have guessed that watching 15 minutes of a crowd screaming would move me like that, but there I was, bawling like a baby! If you didn’t watch Wendy Davis, you missed out (but the Texas Tribune has great recaps). Unlike Davis, I barely lasted for an hour, and I was asleep before the final verdict had been called: the vote happened too late, the bill did not pass, hoorah for all!.
Disclaimer for the rest of this post: I’m going to do some nitpicking. Why? Because it’s what I do, y’all. Because I don’t know how to turn it off. Because I think it still matters how we tell the story even when we win the battle. Ignore me if you’re trying to make your good vibes last for a while. If you want to pick apart media coverage some more, read on.
So this morning, I get up to read the coverage of the epic legislative battle, and the first thing I read is the NYT piece that describes Davis, “a petite Fort Worth Democrat in pink sneakers staged a 10-hour-plus filibuster marathon in which she never sat down.” My Moran-sexism-censors start flashing (Caitlin Moran, author of How to Be a Woman says the simplest way to know if something is sexist is to ask, do men put up with this B.S.?) Normally, we don’t include clothing choices or bodily descriptions when we talk about male politicians. I posted on Facebook that a gender-flip of this would seem unlikely: ”A husky/tall/lanky Fort Worth Democrat in red trainers….”
My gut reaction was that describing Davis’ body and wardrobe were not relevant to her actions on the Senate floor last night, and consequently those comments are a rather benign but contributing part of the overwhelming pattern of objectifying female leaders and reinforcing a culture where attractiveness is a primary component of how we measure female worth. I may be overstating it. Some friends on Facebook certainly thought I was, which is why I’m eternally grateful for all the smart friends I’ve got on Facebook.
Rather than paraphrase, here are a few of their counter arguments:
From Lily: Well, the description of her frame makes me want to vomit, but I think the sneakers bit could have been framed in a way that would be perfectly relevant to describing either a man or woman staging a filibuster (I mean, here, if someone’s wearing sneakers in a setting where you’d normally wear formal shoes, then you know they’re armed to the teeth and preparing for a long battle).
From Christian: Pink sneakers are definitely an anomaly for state reps to wear – it tends to be a more formal setting, and pink could either be coincidental or a deliberate choice (given the profile, I am going with deliberate though). They make her memorable for a news story. While I agree that a description of her frame is out of line, I think pink sneakers are at least marginally (and possibly more than marginally) relevant.
From Brie: I think she wore [the shoes] on purpose, but journo should have discussed (however briefly) the REASON why she wore them, rather than just implying ‘isn’t she just the cutest little thing?’ A simple “Sen. Davis drew attention her effort by wearing pink sneakers throughout her 13-hour filibuster.” Acknowledging that she makes choices, rather than is just a woman to be impassively described. Male gaze, etc. etc.
From Ryan: I’m gonna call reach, although, of course, you’re entitled to your opinion. Wendy Davis is a political unknown; people don’t know her and the media tends to describe people physically when no one knows who they are. Also, she wore sneakers instead of traditional formal footwear because she was standing for 10 hours! That seems totally in-bounds to me. Even so, as a man, my body isn’t subjected to the daily scrutiny that a woman must endure.
From Michele: I get this point in general. That said, I distinctly remember, in childhood, appreciating the descriptions of (mostly male) scientists that opened most Discover magazine articles. We’re visual people, and it does mean something to say that X is sun-tanned, Y has wiry hair, Z is wearing a blue shirt. It humanizes people who belong to segments of society (science, the Senate) that can seem super-unapproachable.
From Dan: The color “pink” is also reasonably notable. It’s a bright color and carries a generally unprofessional tone, as would neon green, bright yellow, or Giants orange tennies. If her shoes were black tennies, I doubt any mention would have occurred. In that narrow context, she willingly stepped into territory for which anyone–male or female–would be criticized.
What I love is that nobody pulled the “You bitchy feminists hate beautiful women, the color pink, shaved legs, bras, penises, etc!” card or assumed I was just being obnoxiously critical for the sake of being obnoxiously critical. Everyone responded thoughtfully and for that, I am so, so grateful. I think Brie’s comment resonates the most with me, but everyone’s notes have shifted my perspective on this a little bit.
So where do I net out? I think, like the Supreme Court, we have to apply an extra level of scrutiny to descriptions of women’s bodies and clothing in the media, especially powerful women whose influence is often undermined by objectifying coverage. There are certainly valid reasons to describe clothing and bodies (of both men and women). In this case, her sneakers served a practical purpose (she was standing for 10+ hours) and were relevant to the uber-important political action she was taking. The fact that they were pink seems superfluous to me, but I’ll allow it based on the argument that the color is significant politically (indicating a commitment to women’s issues).
The “petite” is where I really get tripped up. This was a news article, not a New Yorker profile. Per Michele’s point above, we humans do love to know what people look like, and I don’t think there’s harm in sketching a more complete picture of a public figure. That said, I’ve been clicking on random other news articles today to see if any other political figures have physical descriptors attached to their introductions. Haven’t found one yet (though send me some if you do!). There is a long history of excessively discussing female politicians’ sartorial choices (see pantsuits, scrunchies, make-up, running shorts, etc) in lieu of covering their policies or accomplishments. It is an overal damaging trend that reduces the scope of female accomplishment to that which is accompanied by pretty clothes, a trim figure, or perfectly styled hair.
Does “petite” contribue to that culture? Yeah, I think it does. I think it was unnecessary and detracts from her actions, which certainly speak loud enough. Do I think it was malicious? No. Do I think it’s the most awful thing I’ve read this week? Hell to the no, not by a long shot. That prize goes to Scalia or Jodie Laubenberg, who put forth SB5.
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