Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Katie, Hillary and Sexism

I definitely think that Hillary Clinton's campaign was hurt (but not ruined) by sexist media coverage, especially from folks like Chris Matthews. But to have to read Katie saying this " is a tad annoying: "I find myself in the last bastion of male dominance, and realizing what Hillary Clinton might have realized not long ago: that sexism in the American society is more common than racism, and certainly more acceptable or forgivable. In any case, I think my post and Hillary's race are important steps in the right direction."

Katie Couric makes $15 million a year to read the news. I just don't get how she's a victim of sexism. $15 million a year and her ratings suck. And no, her ratings don't suck because of sexism. Her ratings suck because she has no credibility because she spent years acting like a clown on The Today Show, for which she was also paid obscenely.

This somewhat applies to Hillary Clinton as well. She had to put up with some comments that no reasonable contender for the presidency should have had to put up with. But I actually attribute a lot of it to that Washington D.C. rule of the 1990s which says that it's okay to say anything you want about a Clinton. Even so, she was badly treated. But she's no victim. She's a multimillionaire Senator who is on track to achieve any number of great things in the years ahead.

Is it sexism that keeps Katie from being the number one rated anchor? Or Hillary from being President? How can anyone square that with the wealth, power and influence they already have? Oprah Winfrey had a ton of struggles too. But you don't see her going around saying that sexism and racism have kept her a billionaire instread of a multibillionaire.

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7 Comments:

At 4:54 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

I guess it's not surprising that the most privileged women (educated, white, and/or well-to-do) are usually the most vocal critics of sexism. First, those are precisely the ones who mainstream media are likely to listen to, and as that falling tree in the forest would tell you if you were there, it's hard to be vocal when nobody's listening. Second, those women have the education and the background to succeed in jobs where they're no longer being held back by class, and so other kinds of discrimination become more salient to them.

I'm sure that Couric and Clinton did encounter a great deal of sexism in their careers. Clinton clearly had to endure a lot of those godawful "some people say that a chick would be dangerous in the White House, so, panel, tell me whether you think the fact that she's a chick with chick parts will make Americans think that she'd dangerous in the White House if she insisted on remaining all chicky and stuff."

But if you look at any reputable social science research done in the past two decades, you'll find that race still has a significant effect on professional success, and if I remember the numbers correctly that impact is similar to the impact of gender. To argue that race is less important that sexism seems just straight-up untrue.

And in Couric's case, complaints about sexism strike me as a bit misleading and even ironic. I don't watch her broadcasts all that often because I don't like TV news, but she has never struck me as a particularly good journalist. Not terrible. Just not remarkable. I can think of dozens of men and women who have better experience and better skills than Couric.

The sexism that Couric has had to fight involves a subconscious link between "news anchor" and a strong jaw that speaks in a deep voice. But she's also benefited from the kind of sexism that values cute women over competent women (I'm not saying she's not competent, but I am saying that she wouldn't be where she is today if she weren't cute). In fact, Couric's struggles actually represent a kind of leveling of the playing field in recent decades. American TV news anchors of both genders have long been chosen for the job at least as much for LOOKING trustworthy and insightful as for BEING either of them. The difference is that being an attractive woman of a certain kind now seems to convey those qualities nearly as acceptably as being an attractive man of a certain kind.

To me, American TV news should either hire the absolutely best journalists who can read off a teleprompter without shameful stuttering and Albert Brooks flop-sweat no matter what they look like otherwise or they should stop pretending that the people who read us the news are the actual journalists who get us the news.

 
At 4:23 PM , Blogger Emily said...

Just to chime in as the token (educated, white, well-to-do) angry woman here, I do think it's interested that that the title of the post is "Katie, Hillary and Sexism" rather than "Couric, Clinton and Sexism." Why should the (I imagine unconscious) use of first names rather than last names matter? I think because it's an indication that what matters most about these women is simply that -- the fact that they're women. And that it's still a significant fact, worthy of discussion, for a woman to be a newsanchor, or a presidential candidate, or a billionaire, means that no matter how much any of these women are being paid, there's still a remarkable amount of sexism left to contend with.

 
At 6:27 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

Good point about the names, Emily.

Obviously, despite worries at the Natonal Review, there's still plenty of sexism for everybody. (It's always lady's night at the Glass Ceiling Bar.)

What I think Mike is reacting to--and what I'm definitely reacting to--is how Couric framed her critique of her industry's sexism.

First, it's just a weird impulse to insist on establishing a hierarchy of discrimination, as if racism and sexism couldn't possibly be problems at the same time or even, you know, linked in some important ways. Especially since Couric's evidence for her claim that sexism is worse than racism seems to be--what? That she herself has suffered way more from sexism than racism?

Second, although this borders on the (ahem) ad hominem, I'm also annoyed by Couric's apparent unwillingness to consider how she herself fits into the situation.

An analogy: it is absolutely true that there are very few good roles in Hollywood movies for women (who look) older than about 40. It is absolutely true that's primarily because the industry and its audiences seem very attached to the idea that female actors must above all else look and act like very attractive seventeen-year-old girls rather than, say, act especially well.

But it's also true that there's something disingenuous about the appropriately pneumatic female actors who benefit from that standard for twenty years BEFORE discovering, around age 40, how awful and unfair it is. Meanwhile, women with far more acting ability make a fraction of the money playing those pretty women's comic friends and officemates or by sticking to theater.

I have no doubt that Couric has encountered and does encounter and will encounter substantial sexism in her career, and it's possible that sexism helped divert her from hard news toward the Today Show. But the Today Show is not good training for being a serious journalist, and Couric seems unwilling to concede that. Meanwhile, the Gwen Eiffels, Linda Wertheimers, Leslie Robertses, and Helen Thomases who put in their time honing their craft in the journalistic equivalent of sidekick roles or off-Broadway productions and are far better trained to be really good major-network anchors are far less likely to be able to get a gig like Couric's.

 
At 9:43 AM , Blogger Mike M. said...

Hey Emily,

I don't deny that there's a lot of sexism to contend with. Also, I'm mad. Remember, Hillary is my senator (who I've voted for twice) and was my first choice in the primaries. I do believe that sexism hurt her campaign.

As for my using first names -- Hillary is Hillary. It's her brand. I've seen her use it for three campaigns now.

Katie Couric has also used her first name as a brand, though it's quite possible that the brand she built for most of her career isn't that helpful to her in her current assignment.

Both of them, for different reasons, have chosen to invite the kind of familiarity that would lead a sometime blogger to use their first names.

 
At 1:37 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

I figured that's why you used first names, Mike, but I think Emily's point still holds--the fact that to succeed in their careers both women chose to use their first names says something about what they've been up against.

I doubt that of them said, "The world is sexist, so I'll use my first name." But the particular reasons that did govern their choices are still revealing.

Couric went with "Katie" to show that she was approachable, real, and friendly. It fit with her "Today Show" persona. (I think Matt Lauer also went with "Matt" a lot for the same reason.) But, IIRC, Couric didn't start off wanting to be on the Today Show, but that's where the network put a cute, perky woman whose didn't scream "anchor." (Lauer seems to have ended up stuck on the Today Show, in part, because he's balding and therefore doesn't scream "anchor.") So it's not just sexism but also typecasting, but typecasting in a sexist society also comes from sexist types--men (if they keep their hair) get to move from cuteness to gravitas, but with women it's still a problem. They often get to move from cute to unemployed.

Clinton went with "Hillary" in large part simply to distinguish herself from her husband. And her husband was a hell of a politician--he'd cast a shadow over pretty much anybody, male or female, so even if he'd been gay-married on an Army base, Sir Husband Hilary would probably have gone with his own first name too. But let's face it, a huge part of her ability to get elected in the first place came from sucking it up (while others also sucked it up) and playing the dutiful wife for decades--cookie recipes, tearful forgiveness, giving puff piece interviews about how hard it is to be the first mom... Clinton didn't have to go that route to get into office (Pelosi and others haven't), but the fact that it was a viable choice says something. It's not a career path that most male politicians would have chosen, even if doing so would have helped them.

And, if this is the Emily I assume it is, her comment is coming out of her work, in which until very recently it was acceptable for scholars to write about Austen as "Jane" while nobody would have thought to call Dickens "Charles." Clinton and Couric have to move in that world, and so at least sometimes, they're Katie & Hillary.

 
At 11:34 AM , Blogger Emily said...

Jon,
I think I'm the Emily you think I am. And people still call Austen Jane, just like they still call Charlotte Bronte Charlotte. No one calls George Eliot George, though.

I think part of the sort of disagreement I'm sort of having with Mike is this distinction between an individual woman's choices (to call herself by her first name in public life, for instance) and the ways those choices are determined, or at least affected, by external social structures. Yes, Hillary Clinton, Katie Couric and Oprah Winfrey have chosen to brand themselves as Hillary, Katie and Oprah, and all three have been very successful under those monikers.

But I do find myself wondering about this "choice" to go by a first name -- I wonder if it's at all related to the choice women make who get laid off or can't find work and then choose to become "full-time moms." (I fucking hate that phrase, incidentally. "Mom" in particular sets my teeth on edge. Something about it seems so fundamentally chirpy and patronizing. Anyway.)

 
At 12:54 PM , Blogger Jon E. said...

Hi, Emily. Yeah, you said what I tried to say, except I took way longer: Clinton and Couric have branded themselves Hilary and Katie simply because they thought doing so was a good career move. But the reasons that made doing so a good career move show that the world still applies different standards to women than to men.

And people still seriously call Austen "Jane"? Like, scholars currently publishing or just sweatery types at the Austen Society?

 

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