Always be closing…with relevance

Every morning I wake up and read through my Twitter feed. Usually hundreds of tweets stack up from when I go to bed till when I wake on the West Coast. Often, tweets orbit around the latest social or political happening. But when two seemingly detached tweets converge in my mind on a related note, it feels like kismet.

That convergence happened today around the theme of relevance.

Janet NapolitanoFirst, news broke that Janet Napolitano, U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and former governor of Arizona, would become the next president of the University of California system.

The article by Larry Gordon in the LA Times was filled with many related facts and details about Napolitano’s professional background and the UC system. Then, the article ended with this:

“Napolitano, who is unmarried and has no children, underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer in 2000, just weeks before she addressed the Democratic National Convention.”

How exactly is her marital status or lack of children relevant to her career change? How is her history of breast cancer, and its temporal proximity to the DNC 13 years ago, relevant either?

The theme continued in another article by Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post about the farm bill and its cuts to food stamps.

The article laid the groundwork for the farm bill, how it would affect funding for food stamps, and then Henneberger noted that, “Some opponents of the bill practically burst into flames on the House floor, where some of the loudest voices were female.” She then goes on to quote several female politicians’ objection to the cuts. Henneberger then abruptly changes direction and concludes with the following:

“Female anger is a hot topic right now; I just finished Claire Messud’s not-nice novel ‘The Woman Upstairs,’ about an elementary school teacher who life has turned into a human cauldron ‘a ravenous wolf.'”

For the moment, I will move past the labeling of concerned female politicians as “female anger,” and focus instead on the move from real female politicians, expressing real concern about funding cuts that could affect millions of families and children, to the association of all of this to a fictional woman.

How is this novel relevant to a discussion of food stamps and women politicians who oppose the cuts to such programs?

It is about as relevant as asking two women vying to become senator of one of the largest states whether they have read “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Or as relevant as calling Avril Danica Haines, who was just named as the Deputy Director of the CIA, “an awesomely kinky dominatrix” because she read Anne Rice aloud at her bookstore in her 20s. As The Daily Beast put it, “The former host of ‘Erotica Night’ at a Baltimore bookstore will be the first-ever female No. 2 official at the CIA.”

How is any of this relevant to the news that is being reported?

And in the case of the Napolitano and food stamp articles, why do the journalists close each article with information that is unrelated?

I know that journalists are not as constrained in terms of word count and column inches due to online publishing, but just because you can say more, doesn’t mean you should.

I also know that journalists for a long time implemented the inverted pyramid, with the most important or eye-grabbing information first, followed by less newsworthy details. This journalistic norm was made all the more popular because readers often didn’t get all the way to the end of an article. Nowadays, it could be considered TL;DR.

But to end articles with irrelevant material seems like a case of the inverted pyramid going too far.

When I was reporting on the 2012 elections for UW Election Eye, I would always belabor over the concluding sentences, trying to make them wrap the whole post up in some perfect little bow. My editor David Domke told me it wasn’t necessary, that some posts can just stop.

So my advice to journalists covering women who feel compelled to close on a completely irrelevant note is this: Just stop.

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Let’s get visual?

Pink tennis shoes. Pink stilettos. Purse boys. Pantsuit aficionados.

These phrases perhaps appear to be more at home with a style section on the latest fashion trends, but recently they have found their way into countless news articles, blog posts, and tweets about women politicians.

In the midst of this discussion, recent research has come out of two camps regarding the effects of appearance coverage on voters’ assessments of politicians. Research concerning appearance is certainly not new. What seems to be drumming things up is that the two studies conflict. Jennifer Lawless of American University and Danny Hayes of George Washington University found that appearance coverage does not differentially affect women more than men. In other words, when participants read articles containing appearance coverage there were virtually no differences between men and women’s favorability ratings. Name It. Change It. came out with a study that showed that appearance coverage did hurt women’s electability. They did not include male candidates in their study, but they did have control groups, so they were able to determine the differences in effects between the presence and absence of appearance coverage.

That the studies conflict is nothing new in research. It happens often. Research is, after all, an iterative process. No one study is the end all, be all of results. Rather, we need to conduct multiple studies on various participants to start to assemble and recognize consistent patterns.

Molly Ball of The Atlantic published an article today that summarized the two studies, and also commented on her opinion regarding news coverage of women’s appearance. Her take on the matter is summed up in the title of the article: No, It’s Not Sexist to Describe Women Politicians’ Clothes.

Ball’s article, as well as the debate surrounding the two studies, brought up two thoughts for me. Neither of these thoughts were, “Lawless and Hayes are right, or Name It. Change It. is right.” I say this for two reasons. First, as I said before, research is iterative. It is too soon to support some definitive stance on the matter. Second, I don’t have access to Lawless and Hayes’s research so I can’t assess the methodology or complete results, and thus make a full comparison to the Name It. Change It. study.

Michelle Obama at 2012 DNCRather, the first thought was a memory from the 2012 DNC. Specifically, it was about Michelle Obama’s DNC speech. There was a fair amount of anticipation and speculation around it. Reports saying she wrote it herself, and other debate about how pivotal it was for her to strike the right tone and energy for her husband. One of the things I remember most about this speech was viewers’ reaction. Not to the content, but to her appearance. Some of my female friends admitted, almost sheepishly, to me that their first thought when Michelle Obama stepped out on the stage was, “Oh, I love her dress!” There was palpable guilt in their admittance that they noticed her dress or shoes. If was as if some cardinal sin had been committed that set women back in some way.

I don’t think people should feel such guilt around a first impression.

What is your first impression when you see the photo below?

2012 Republican presidential candidates

Is it something along the lines that in this photo of 2012 Republican presidential candidates that Michele Bachmann stands out? Perhaps it is because she is the only woman on the stage. Maybe it is because in a string of dark suits, she is the only one wearing a light color suit.

Now take the picture below. What is your first impression?


You probably notice that one of these things is not like the others. The difference is that you probably don’t feel any guilt in noticing this difference.

This is how most brains work. They look for patterns; they categorize and organize information to make sense of it. As such, I don’t have a problem with people noticing someone’s appearance.

The bigger issue for me is when appearance is the story, when the focus on appearance seems to eclipse everything else.

For example, the Washington Post published an entire article about White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler’s shoes, and no, it was not in the style section. After reading the article I know nothing about this woman in any professional capacity, only about her love of shoes.

The other thought I had while reading Ball’s article was regarding her point on the idea of clothing and appearance being strategic, and how commenting on it or critiquing it in a news article is similar to critiquing other strategic decisions by politicians. I think there is room for looking at appearance coverage via this perspective.

I have no doubt that appearance is a strategic decision by politicians. Virtually everything politicians do is a performance of how they want to be perceived. During the 2012 general election, there was talk about how Mitt Romney would slightly dishevel his hair, roll up his sleeves, and wear slightly frayed jeans as an attempt to make himself seem more relatable, more of the every man instead of the guy with a car elevator.

This type of critique becomes part of the story, not the whole story, about a candidates’ strategy for office. This type of appearance coverage is used as a piece of evidence building toward a larger argument. As such, it fits in with analyzing a candidate’s stump speeches for shifts in rhetorical appeals, looking at who they campaign with and their campaign surrogates, evaluating their campaign stop decisions, etc. Everything is a performance and everything is strategic. So to look at appearance as a site of performance and critique is not inherently wrong or sexist.

But to focus on it more for women than men, is problematic. And research examining the 2008 elections did find that Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were subjected to more appearance coverage than men (e.g., Conners, 2009; Heldman, Oliver, and Conroy, 2009; Wasburn and Wasburn, 2011).

And to make appearance the whole story and not just part of a wider assessment of a candidate’s strategy, or to use it as a baseless teardown of a candidate is also problematic and happens all too often. Something tells me that coverage of Clinton’s tangerine pantsuit was not part of a hard-nosed discussion about candidate strategy.

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America’s workplace woes extend beyond gender

Yesterday the New York Times ran two articles that focused on gender in the workplace.

The first, “Women Are at the Table, So Now What?,” posited how the increase in women in the workforce may affect workplace practices. The article centered on a summit of mostly women who gathered to talk about “what some ambitiously billed as a new wave of the women’s movement.” Hosted by television anchor Mika Brzezinski and media entrepreneur Arianna Huffington, journalist Anand Giridharadas summarized the new wave’s ideals:

The new world conjured at the summit meeting remains vague and sketchy. But it seems to involve things like meditation before meetings and nap rooms at the office; flexible arrangements to allow all workers, not just women, to sell an employer as many hours of labor each week as they wish; “digital detox days”; and full, impregnable nights of sleep.

While this article questioned what options would be available, the other article questioned whether anyone would even be able to use them.

In the article, “The Unspoken Stigma of Workplace Flexibility,” journalist Tara Siegel Bernard does not reference any new wave of feminism, but rather critiques the status quo of feminism. The main argument of the article is that while many workplaces are offering flexibility, e.g., longer maternity and paternity leave, flextime options, etc., few women or men are taking up this offer because doing so still reads as being weak or not being committed enough to the job. She writes…

For women to be able to take advantage of these arrangements without judgment, men need to use them freely, too. But that requires viewing men not solely as breadwinners, but as individuals who also have the same choices as women.

The article suggested that for women to capitalize on these flexibility offerings that men had to lead the way. In other words, men needed to use them first, to deem them “safe for use” before women could. Essentially, women fought to get a seat at the table, and if they use these options in general or if they use them and men don’t, they may lose that seat.

This “men and fathers first” approach is certainly problematic. Ensuring workplace flexibility was supposed to help bring women back to the workforce, and of course an offshoot of this was that men too would benefit from these offerings. Now it seems as though in order for women to use these offerings, which were created “for them,” they must once again wait in line behind men. And because our ideals of men also include the perspective of them as breadwinners, it may be a while before they feel safe cashing in on these offerings. Cue the vicious cycle.

This dilemma is often portrayed as a gender issue, but it is more than that. It is an American issue.

Specifically, it is about how Americans view work.

The United States values individual achievement, competition, tangible accomplishments, and upholds the idioms of “time is money” and “live to work.” Using terms from intercultural studies, America is an individualisticmasculine, monochronic society.

One clear manifestation of this value system is vacation. According to recent research by the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a Washington Post article reports, “America is the only rich country that doesn’t guarantee paid vacation or holidays.”

Vacation days by country via the Washington Post

European Union member countries set a minimum amount of vacation time at four weeks or 20 days per year. Several EU member countries require even more: France mandates 30 days of paid annual leave; the United Kingdom, 28; Denmark, Finland, Norway and Sweden, 25; and Germany, 24. Several nations also enforce certain provisions to ensure that leave is taken. The US, however, does not legally require employers to provide paid annual leave.

This “live to work” mentally also often means that Americans don’t use all of their vacation, and it also affects how Americans perceive other countries. A common stereotype Americans have of more “work to live” countries is that they are less productive. Americans’ view Latin American countries’ “mañana” culture and the cultural practice of siestas as lazy. When the French take a country-wide holiday for weeks at a time at the end of the summer, Americans view this as inconvenient and indulgent.

And these stereotypes persist. Many of the students in my Intercultural Communication class mentioned that they hold these perceptions. When asked whether they would want more vacation or more money, almost all of them said more money. Anecdotal as this evidence may be, I believe it is indicative of the broader American culture.

And so the vicious cycle continues. To break it will require a whole culture—Americans, regardless of gender—to shift their perceptions to take advantage of workplace flexibility. And with Yahoo’s new “no-work-from-home” policy, this shift seems to be getting farther away.

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G.I. Jaye: Action movies’ two-steps-forward, one-step-back approach to gender

GI Joe Retaliation posterLast weekend I saw G.I. Joe: Retaliation. I like a good action movie as much as the next gal, but this, this was not a good action movie.

This post isn’t about the choppy editing, or poor plot line, or all the other things that made this a sad display of theatricality. It is about gender.

Pop culture sits at an interesting nexus of both reifying and breaking stereotypes. For instance, the show Will & Grace featured two portrayals of gay men: the over-the-top, flamboyant character of Jack juxtaposed against the less stereotypic, seemingly more grounded character of Will. Through socialization, we are influenced by these depictions and also feed these depictions in a struggle of moving forward, yet backward with each stereotype that is portrayed and broken.

American action movies also feed into this loop. They are notorious for presenting hyper masculinized male leads whose bodies defy reality and whose job it is to 1. Save the country, and 2. Get the girl.

In this case, Dwayne Johnson, aka Roadblock, is a stereotypical, unending display of muscles and force. His omnipresent Under Amour shirt looks painted on. But his character also breaks some stereotypes. His secondary goal isn’t to get the girl, but girls.

Johnson is portrayed in the movie as a single dad of two girls — a storyline, to my knowledge, not present in previous iterations of the G.I. Joe franchise. The film doesn’t outright say he is a single dad, but he is the only parental figure present in all of the scenes with his daughters. This depiction breaks the action movie norm, and presents Johnson as both hero and family man, but with a twist since there is no loving wife welcoming him home after his heroics. But the stereotype breaking stops there.

Enter Lady Jaye.

Some things are canonical and hard to get past. Such as, why is she Lady Jaye and the other male characters are not Gentleman Flint? This character’s gender-fueled name was set in stone in 1985 when she first appeared in the series.

Other things, however, are harder to swallow.

Adrianne Palicki as Lady JayeLike so many other action movies, G.I. Joe presents conflicting images and personas for female characters. Lady Jaye, played by Adrianne Palicki, is a strong, forceful action hero who vocally objects in the movie to being penned as a secretary by male superiors. Yet in multiple scenes she is overtly sexualized and her appearance is used as strategic bait. In one scene she wears a sports bra and barely-there running “shorts” while bending over—a scene where her assets are literally the focal point. In another scene she is wearing a revealing red evening gown with a high cut slit and low neck line.

All of this is par for the course in action movies. I don’t like it, but it is certainly not surprising. And the sexualization of men is also certainly present. Storm Shadow does a whole fight scene in a flurry of blades while dripping wet without a shirt.Byung-hun Lee as Storm Shadow

But one scene really irked me.

In one of the movie’s “now it’s time to get deep and reflective” moments, Lady Jaye shares some personal information with Flint after a mission. In the scene Lady Jaye recounts how her veteran father was unhappy he had a girl and how he didn’t believe women should serve, prompting Lady Jaye to enlist and to try to move up the chain fast enough to outrank her father. But before she can, he dies. Daddy issues as motivation. Certainly not a new trope.

Beyond the daddy issues, the sentiment of showing your military dad that women can serve and breaking expectations is positive. It’s a classic movie plot, but nonetheless moves in a more progressive direction.

But before we applaud the writers for a mild attempt at breaking norms, it is very important to note that during this entire scene, Lady Jaye is getting undressed. She is taking off her aforementioned revealing red dress and paring down to her strapless bra and lace underwear. And if the pairing and clash of female empowerment and sexualization wasn’t enough, the whole time Flint is watching her undress in a reflective surface. Oh Jaye, I am sure you deeply wanted to bare your soul and your physique while your confidant ogled you.

Palicki as Lady Jaye

I was annoyed, frustrated. Really, this is the best we can do? A grand bargain in which strong women must still be objectified and sexualized? Dear movie watcher, behold female advancement but only at a cost.

Full disclosure, my female cousin was in the Marines and I am very proud of her and I know it was not an easy road for her. So the coupling of objectification with being a woman in the military hits particularly close to home for me. Women have worked hard to be taken seriously in the military and to be deemed “worthy enough” to fight on the front lines, so to see that effort sullied by outright sexualization was more than annoying, it was insulting for me.

That said, G.I. Joe is certainly not alone. In 2012, people trumpeted about how great the Hunger Games was because it showed a strong female character, Katniss, played by Jennifer Lawrence, who acts as her own hero. She may be in distress, but she’s no damsel.

But lest we forget, Katniss, for all her archery skills and bravery, was still cast in a love triangle, caught between two men, and wears a skin tight uniform when she’s not made to dress in pretty gowns. And during the games, she does show courage and prowess, but she is also dependent on the male character Haymitch for support and she sacrifices her own survival to nurse the male lead Peeta back to health.

Yes, I am glad that women in movies are taking on less stereotypic roles and breaking some norms. Yes, progress should be lauded even though it’s slow and often marred. But let’s not forget that these women are still tethered to the usual stereotypic, sexualized baggage.

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Margaret Thatcher and the plateau of progress

Margaret ThatcherThere are many cross-national comparisons conducted between the United States and the United Kingdom. These comparisons often point out some of the parallels between the two, but in my line of work there is always one particular difference: the UK has had a female head of government and America hasn’t.

I’m speaking, of course, of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who died earlier today of a stroke.

In the wake of this news, some questioned the impact of Thatcher’s presence as the first and only female British PM:

Thatcher’s tenure in office was momentous in many ways, but one would only need to look at the simple exchange below to get a glimpse of Thatcher’s impact on gender in politics:

“Former vice-presidential candidate Geraldine Ferarro recounted a story told to her while in London during Margaret Thatcher’s tenure as prime minister. A member of British Parliament overheard two children playing. Ferraro stated, ‘The little boy turned to the little girl and said, ‘I want to be the prime minister.’ The little girl responded, ‘You can’t, you’re a boy.’ It would be unlikely to witness a similar exchange between children in the United States… (Anderson, 2002, p. 123).

At the time, many thought Thatcher’s election represented a sea change in the public’s perception of women in the masculine world of politics. A similar sentiment was trumpeted when President Barack Obama was elected, and people suggested that the US has moved into a post-race era. But the US is still very much so not post-race, and gender still remains a source of “othering” in politics.

Thatcher died almost 23 years after leaving office, and she did not witness another woman elected PM. She witnessed instead “Blair’s Babes,” the demeaning label given to a photograph of 101 women MPs posing at the time with PM Tony Blair. She also witnessed current PM David Cameron’s operation of an “old Etonian clique that excludes women.” Emma Barnett of The Telegraph lamented, “Undoubtedly there are also lots of men left out of the Prime Minister’s cosy clique. But what’s really worrying is still how much of a boys’ club Westminster is in 2012.”

Blair's Babes

From The Telegraph: Echoes of Blair’s babes: Labour is holding a Women Only day at the start of its conference Photo: EDDIE MULHOLLAND

The historic nature of Thatcher’s election and tenure created a deeply profound ripple in gender and politics, and while that impact created some meaningful change in perceptions, it alone is not enough to break down the gendered barriers to office. The first woman, or African-American man, to do/be something is vitally important, but it is not enough on its own to create lasting social and cultural progress.

One only needs to look at the the tweet and image below to see that more is needed:

Tweets from people questioning who Thatcher is.
Could they be joking, sure. Is it possible that these people represent on some level a younger generation that does not know Thatcher, definitely. I guest lectured an undergraduate class in the fall of 2011, before Michele Bachmann dropped out of the presidential race, and when I asked the class if there were any women running for president they said no, and when I asked if they had heard of Bachmann, only one student out of the 30+ recognized her name.

The first woman to do something has the tide of historic change and momentum on her heels. President Obama in 2008 had that same energy, and many said that his re-election was harder because “making history again” was not as energizing and awe-inspiring. The next woman, the next African-American man, the next “norm-breaker,” I argue, has a steeper hill to climb to success. Thatcher, unfortunately, never saw another woman achieve that climb in the almost quarter century since leaving office.

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