About That Photo….

I haven’t had a chance to write about it yet, but some of you probably know that the July/August issue of the Washington Monthly included a fine article by Anne Kim (an old friend and colleague of mine, as it happens) of the Progressive Policy Institute on the shortage of women in the DC think tank world. For better or worse, the article was accompanied by a photo of a woman sporting wonky looking glasses and decidedly unwonky tight clothes and cleavage, plus a t-shirt with the word “Think” on it.

The twitterverse lit up with a variety of comments on the photo, and several bloggers–most notably Amanda Marcotte at Slate–discussed it (and the article) as well.

A lot of people were curious about what the article’s author thought about the photo. So Anne Kim has asked that we publish her thoughts on the subject:

Some readers have objected to the photo accompanying my piece in this month’s issue on the dearth of women in think tanks. The offending picture shows a tousled-haired, skimpily-clad creature unlikely to appear (at least not in that outfit) at any of the staid policy gatherings I write about. Some have suggested that I, as the author of the piece, should be especially outraged and offended.

Here’s my response: I don’t mind the picture. In fact, I like it.

And I like it for the same reason that Amanda Marcotte of Slate doesn’t—it makes the point that “[w]hen you live in a society that values women more for their bodies than their brains, female underrepresentation in the smarty-pants professions is the entirely predictable result.”

The photo isn’t inappropriate; it’s provocative. And it directly challenges people to confront their own biases about how beauty (or the lack thereof) affects the prospects for a woman’s success in ways that men don’t have to deal with. No one wants to admit that they take a woman’s looks into account when they make judgments about her intellect, and that’s why this photo makes people uncomfortable. Let’s face it–how many of us assumed that the woman in the picture had an IQ lower than her bra size?

Georgetown linguist Deborah Tannen commented decades ago that every woman is “marked” for her appearance, even—and perhaps especially if—she’s trying to downplay the role of her looks. How many conversations did we have about Hillary Clinton’s hair and wardrobe in 2008 versus Barack Obama’s hair and clothing choices? To Tannen’s point, even Mrs. Clinton’s effort to make clothes a non-issue (i.e., the six black pantsuits) were an issue.

Men, on the other hand, can get away with relative anonymity as far as their looks are concerned, unless someone is excessively aesthetically challenged, either hygienically or sartorially (e.g., a penchant for seersucker in January). Even then, male wardrobe malfunctions might be seen as “charming eccentricities,” versus as a proxy for his brainpower or character.

But as Marcotte also points out, this point is not a new one, which is why I spend most of the piece writing about a point that many commenters ignore: there are larger structural problems that have nothing to do with women in tank tops that have led to a shortage of female voices in public policy and politics.

In addition to the reasons I write about, Anne-Marie Slaughter writes in The Atlantic about another possibility, which is that it’s impossible for most mortal women to reach the uppermost echelons of politics and policy without tremendous cost to their families.

Further reinforcing that point, American University scholars Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox found that women are much less likely to run for public office in part due to the fact that women, more than men, are the principal caregivers in their families. (Women are also more likely than men to be turned off by the less appealing aspects of modern campaigning such as asking for money and having every corner of their private lives revealed.)

If there is one regret that I have about the photo, it’s that the discussion it’s sparked is falling into a well-worn rut. Rather, I’d much prefer the debate to center on solving the structural challenges that make it harder for women’s opinions, work and time to be given equal weight and value.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.