Recently, UniteWomen.org posted a picture of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her response to an interviewer asking what designers she wears. Here’s the text:
Hillary Clinton on what designers she wears:
Interviewer: Okay. Which designers do you prefer?
Hillary Clinton: What designers of clothes?
Hillary Clinton: Would you ever ask a man that question?
Interviewer: Probably not. Probably not.
Probably not indeed. The Secretary of State is not the first woman to respond in this way to similarly dumb questions as of late. Anne Hathaway and Scarlett Johansson both recently made news when they called interviewers out for asking only about their pre-superheroine diets and costumes. And a few months back, Ashley Judd wrote a scathing op-ed wherein she slammed the Huffington Post for printing an article that discussed her puffy face. (She was sick! But that’s not the point). Judd pointed out the problematic reduction of female stars to their bodies and outfits, wherein their male counterparts are consistently asked to talk about character development, acting, and things actually pertinent to the film or TV show at hand.
Objectifying women is, of course, nothing new. The latest backlash, however, does seem to be new–and exciting.
Fashion is important to talk about: it’s political and meaningful. But why reporters ask about the Secretary of State’s clothing when it has no bearing on her job has everything to do with our society’s expectations about women, and the pre-set scripts we use to talk to and about powerful women.
Here are some of our thoughts on the recent trend of high-profile women calling out sexism during their interviews. Let us know what you’re thinking in the comments!
Sarah T: I love that the trend of women calling out their interviewers is drawing attention to the sexist underpinnings of seemingly innocuous questions. On the surface, a question about your workout routine or who designed your blazer or whatever just seems so dumb it’s not even worth getting into. So I think in the past, women have tended to just gloss over the question, avoid conflict, and move on. And that’s a completely valid tactic. But I love the way Hillary asks the interviewer if he would ask a man that same question. She directly confronts the double standard of the topics the media expects men and women to talk about. Anne Hathaway takes a more sarcastic (and hilarious) approach when her interviewer starts prying about her diet and exercise, turning the tables on him and starting to interrogate him about why he’s so interested — “We need to talk about this. Are you trying to fit into a catsuit?” That makes me laugh so much.
But both methods get at the root problem, which is that these questions aren’t actually innocuous after all. They perpetuate a culture where women are defined by their weight and their clothes and their hair. And that’s basically a big patriarchal trick to keep women sidelined. Hillary’s the Secretary of State, and she’s fielding questions about her clothes? That’s preposterous. And yes, actresses’ appearances are a part of their profession, so it’s not as ridiculous to ask them questions about it. But the leering dynamic where a male interviewer grills actresses about how they get to look the way they do doesn’t get at anything actually interesting. The point of those questions is basically to reinforce cultural pressure on women to look perfect in every way and not worry so much about things like thinking and climate change and friends and love and careers and the future of the euro.
When Ashley Judd writes about getting scrutinized for her appearance, on the other hand, she’s talking about beauty in a way that’s not superficial. That’s a conversation about appearance that’s actually worthwhile for women. So I guess my point is, it’s not that interviewers should never ask women questions about fashion or beauty (though they should certainly consider whether that’s appropriate depending on the interviewee). But they should ask BETTER questions if they do. They should try to get at something real.
Phoebe B: I concur! It seems to me that were any of these questions asked during an interview for Vogue, Vanity Fair, or any fashion-type magazine then it would be totally reasonable and important to ask questions about fashion. Or if everyone received the same questions about fashion in a way that would acknowledge, for example, that fashion is important across the board and is (or at least can be) political. However, it seems reasonable to draw line before questions like Ann Hathaway got about fitting into a catsuit.
But back to the politics of fashion: I’m thinking about the awesome posts over at Threadbared, which constantly discuss, analyze, and ponder the politics of fashion or why it is important to talk about Jill Alexander’s line of clothes for Olympian Sarah Robles. But the questions posed to Hillary Clinton, Anne Hathaway, and Scarlett Johansson are not in this vein at all. Rather, the questions reduce women to their bodies time and time again and perpetuates a culture wherein women become spectacles of weight loss, weight gain, tight clothes, and pretty dresses.
This framework figures Clinton and Hathaway alike as unthinking bodies that are only good for looking at. The interviewers’ questions also presume that this information about clothes, diet, and exercise is what all women want to know about. This woman, at least, would really prefer to hear the Secretary of State talk about being badass at foreign policy or Anne Hathaway chat about character development and being Catwoman. I feel like we have to start asking better questions of everyone because then perhaps we can start having better conversations.