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Jan. 5, 2022, 11:17 a.m.
Reporting & Production

It’s O.K. to write about women, fashion, and politics — but here’s how to do it better

“Optics is part of politics, which makes wardrobe choices fair game in many news stories, and not just in those featuring women.”

Rep. Liz Cheney’s “boxy jackets.” Sen. Kyrsten Sinema’s penchant for sleeveless tops. The Vice President’s pearls. Just about everything AOC pulls out of her closet.

These are some recent examples of how female politicians’ clothing choices have made headlines, signaling what we see as a necessary but complex shift in the way journalists tackle fashion in the political arena. As more women seek elected office, many of them are using fashion to make statements about their biographies, their ideologies, and their place in history.

But they do so in a media environment that still treats women very differently than their male peers, often fixating on physical appearance in ways that trivialize powerful women as sex objects, celebrities or overly masculine villains. As our ongoing research shows, this dynamic presents a challenge for journalists, one that’s worth pondering as we enter another election year.

It’s clear journalists are struggling to find appropriate ways to frame political fashion choices, as evidenced by ongoing debates about what is (and isn’t) newsworthy. Take, for instance, the letter from three senators to The New York Times in November around the paper’s coverage of Sinema and, earlier in the fall, a dust-up around Rep. Ocasio-Cortez’s outfit at the Met Gala. Also: Rep. Lauren Boebert’s parody dress. And, as we found during our research into coverage of Vice President Kamala Harris, hyperpartisanship further complicates these dynamics.

Is it okay, then, for journalists to write about fashion when covering powerful women? From our perspective, the answer must be yes, because ignoring fashion-related narratives would present an incomplete account of modern politics. That said, journalists need to approach their coverage carefully and with an eye toward the history of sexist news coverage of female political figures — a phenomenon that some argue dims women’s political ambitions and damages the way voters view female politicians.

Optics is part of politics, which makes wardrobe choices fair game in many news stories, and not just in those featuring women. An image of Adlai Stevenson’s worn-down shoe helped photographer William Gallagher win the Pulitzer Prize. And, during the 1996 presidential primaries, the New York Times smartly covered how Republican contender Lamar Alexander used his signature red-and-black flannel shirt to make himself seem like less of a Beltway insider.

But it’s also far too easy to find egregious examples of sexist coverage of female politicians. In 1984, after Democrat Geraldine Ferraro became the party’s vice presidential nominee, Denver Post columnist Woodrow Paige wrote that she had “nicer legs” than her predecessors and wondered if she might be the first vice president to enter a wet T-shirt contest. In 2000, coverage of Elizabeth Dole’s bid for the Republican nomination was more dignified but overly fixated on her appearance and feminine traits. Eight years later, both Hillary Clinton and Sarah Palin faced sexist — and, in Palin’s case, often sexualized — coverage in both the legacy press and emerging digital media platforms.

At the same time, barrier-breaking women are writing a new kind of playbook when it comes to fashion as policy statements. Madeleine Albright’s impactful time in the late 1990s as the first female Secretary of State is remembered, in part, for the statements she made through her careful selection of jewelry to convey non-verbal messages. Hillary Clinton has spoken and written about her intentional use of the pantsuit during her time in the Senate and as a presidential candidate. More recently, a group of Congresswomen wore white to then President Trump’s 2019 State of the Union address to celebrate suffrage and signal their commitment to upholding hard-earned gender rights. Reporting on these fashion-related themes wasn’t necessarily sexist, because the aesthetics were connected to policy positions and identity. These fashion choices sometimes become more newsworthy when they gain traction among rank-and-file voters signaling their support for a certain candidate, party or cause.

This is a complex situation for politicians, campaign staffers, journalists, and anyone else who cares about gender equity in civic life. While researching news coverage of Harris, we found fresh evidence of the tensions between female politicians embracing fashion as a tool of power and news organizations’ perpetuation of sexist tropes.

As part of a larger research project that looks at stories about the new Vice President in online news sources across the political spectrum, we specifically dug into how fashion was covered. Using the Media Cloud platform, we collected roughly 17,000 stories about Harris from 1,200 online news outlets published between Aug. 19, 2020, and April 30, 2021. (That’s the day President Biden announced her as her running mate through the end of Biden’s first 100 days in office). Six percent of these stories mentioned her fashion choices, but we found a significant partisan divide as to how those choices were framed.

The most significant fashion-related narratives related to Harris’s frequent choice of pearl necklaces and her Vogue cover shoot — both examples of stories focusing more on aesthetics than policy. In outlets associated with Democrats, the pearl necklace was referred to as a symbol of pride and affiliation, often accompanied with a link to a piece from Oprah Daily about the “real meaning” of Harris’ pearl necklaces. They are a nod to her days in the Howard University sorority Alpha Kappa Alpha. Yet, stories about her pearls barely registered in news sources aligned with the right.

The Vogue cover shoot, meanwhile, generated fashion-related coverage on both sides of the partisan divide. This was one of the biggest fashion stories on the left, covered as a fashion moment for a new celebrity icon. On the right it was discussed as a “controversy,” with “backlash” associated with the “unprofessional” photo.

A different example emerges from looking at stories that focused on Harris’ choice to wear white in her address to the nation after the election was called. The bulk of these stories mentioned her outfit as a nod to the suffragette movement and focused on it as a statement of identity and power, but these all came from the left. The choice was completely ignored on the right, an example of omitting coverage of a fashion statement by a powerful woman.

Overall, we found many mixed examples like this — some stories honored Harris’ fashion choices as powerful statements about her positions, while others focused on the aesthetics in a way they never would for a male politician. But the theme remained the same: Sources associated with right-leaning readers most often employed trivializing narratives, while sources associated with left-leaning readers covered her more like a celebrity.

How, then, should journalists cover fashion in the modern political arena? It’s a fraught question, but one that must be addressed head on as more women win high-profile elections.

It’s unrealistic to instruct journalists to ignore physical appearance altogether. And, as we’ve explained, doing so would omit important explorations of how women are engaging with — and perhaps changing — gendered stereotypes around leadership and power.  That said, it’s far too easy to fall into the trap of repeating and reinforcing gendered narratives, doing major disservice to the field of journalism, its role in society, and the subjects of its reporting.

One good example of how to navigate modern political fashion comes from a recent Tressie McMillan Cottom’s New York Times opinion pieces (interestingly, one called out specifically), which focuses on how some of Sinema’s fashion choices interacted with privilege and historically racist norms.

Cottom notes, “On Obama, fitted sheaths without sleeves were a code for unruly behavior and thus disrespect for the president’s office. But unruliness is a reputation that Sinema can afford to cultivate.” Cottom’s thoughtful, historically connected reporting engages nuance and highlights potentially intentional choices Sinema is making. We should encourage this type of work.

At the same time, news organizations should be mindful of the volume of coverage focused on a certain fashion narrative. Note here that, while Cottom’s column was thoughtful and nuanced, it was part of a flurry of stories about Sinema’s wardrobe that, at times, seemed to drown out serious coverage of fractures in the Democratic caucus in the Senate.

Coming into another election year, journalists on the political beat should educate themselves about past pitfalls and, perhaps, connect with their colleagues on the fashion beat to understand how and when female politicians embrace fashion as a statement of power. Engage this historical context face-on. Sexist patterns of coverage will continue and should be called out by politicians and the industry itself. That said, the media and politicians alike must adapt to a context where thoughtful reporting on fashion is acceptable and distinguishable from the usually sexist tropes.

Figuring this out has the potential to help improve news coverage of politicians of all genders and to shift public perception around what it means to look like a leader.

Rahul Bhargava is an Assistant Professor of Journalism and Art + Design at Northeastern University where he works on projects that leverage data to interrogate our evolving culture. Meg Heckman is an Assistant Professor of journalism at Northeastern University where she works to dismantle journalism’s macho culture and improve representation of women in news media. Emily Boardman Ndulue is a Senior Researcher with the Media Cloud project where she works to understand how stories move through the online media ecosystem.

Photo of 2020 Fashion Calendar by GOSTI used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Jan. 5, 2022, 11:17 a.m.
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