Sexism & Clothes

September 23, 2008

Hillary Clinton recently repeated one of the tropes of the campaign:

“I think you have to ask yourself and it’s a little exercise I’d like everybody in the press, and really all of us, to go through: Would the same thing be said about a man in a similar position and the answer 99 times out of 100 is no. I think it’s been a long time since anybody covered what Barack Obama, Joe Biden, or John McCain wear or their hairstyle or any other personal characteristic like that.”

To which there are two responses.  First, this is demonstrably false: the media has done a commendable job of tracking the story of Biden’s hair plugs;  also well covered is Obama’s elegant dress sense, and particular attention was paid to his acceptance speech ensemble.

Second, in our society women have a broader range of clothing choices than men.  In this, our society is like every other society ever in the history of humanity.  These choices are an expression of identity; you might complain about this on “don’t judge a book by its cover” lines, but that’s adolescent – shut up and dress respectable like for your sister’s play, junior.  And since women have more choices in clothing, they have more opportunity for expression, and this is a valid topic for comment.

Below the fold, a bonus edition of “Yglesias being wrong” (a copyrighted feature of this blog).

Here’s Yglesias addressing this:

Robin Givhan mounts a defense of paying disproportionate attention to the outfits of political women:

“It is not sexist to have noticed that Sen. Hillary Clinton delivered her         convention speech dressed in head-to-toe mango. Only an obstinately unaware person would have ignored this question: Senator, why are you dressed like a tropical fruit? One assumes it was to ensure an eye-catching photo for the history books and to underscore her “sisterhood of the traveling pantsuits” legacy.”

A woman in politics could choose to dress consistently in the same kind of drab colors that her male colleagues choose, but that would be noteworthy in its own right. And if she chooses not to do so, then her bold colors become noteworthy. What’s sexist here isn’t noticing a bright orange suit, but the set of differing conventions and expectations about what male and female politicians should do — conventions that all-but-ensure a higher overall level of scrutiny will be given to women’s wardrobes.

Well, no.  The key sentence is the last one, where Yglesias points out exactly what he thinks is sexist.  Apparently what is sexist is “the set of differing conventions and expectations about what male and female politicians should do”, but what those are, Yglesias doesn’t say.  Is it the expectation that women will dress well?  We do expect that, but we also expect that of male politicians (c.f. Kerry in a mango suit).  Or that they will dress colorfully?  Or not colorfully?  I hope that’s not what he means, because we don’t have either of those expectations.

In the end, we talked an inordinate amount about Hillary’s clothing because it was inordinately terrible.  Who can forget the yellow pantsuit that the press corps called the ‘bumblebee suit’:

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