Political Animal


July 12, 2012 1:04 PM About That Photo….

By Ed Kilgore

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 is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.


  • Hedda Peraz on July 12, 2012 1:16 PM:

    Like the mule and the 2x4, first you have to get their attention.

    -go check out the ads to right of this post. . .

  • c u n d gulag on July 12, 2012 1:32 PM:

    I guess...

    There are plenty of unattractive men on TV and in the MSM. Fat, bald, skinny, old, big ears, dandruff, speech impediments, etc.

    But women?
    Almost all of them in the MSM are good looking, to one degree or another. And too often, utter gibbering morons like Erin Burnett and Norah O'Donnell, are put in the limelight, asked to opine, as if they knew sh*t from Shinola.

    So, after years of looking at cute, vacuous young men and women on the news, when CNN elevated Candy Crowley to some sort of chief political correspondent, I thought, "Oh, good, she MUST be smart, and be one HELL OF A REPORTER!"

    She was so heavy and unattractive, she looked like Rush in a wig and a moo-moo.

    So because of that, I assumed she had attributes she didn't have - because, as I said, usually, the only way to move up in corporate video news, is to look like a Barbie or Ken doll.

    Candy proved to be as bad as any of the dolls.

    And I had such high hopes for her...

    Now, I don't watch much network or cable TV news.

    I'd watch Rachel, and some of the others on the MSNBC evening crew - and the weekend morning folks are great! But I'm so out of the habit, that I either forget to watch, or don't want to get back in what may be a bad habit if MSNBC changes it's format - like it's may be starting to, adding that odious, talking point spewing nitwit, S.E. Cupp.

  • Jeff In Ohio on July 12, 2012 1:59 PM:

    Nigel Tufnel: Well, so what? What's wrong with bein' sexy? I mean there's no...

    Ian Faith: Sex-IST!

    David St. Hubbins: IST!

  • JB Allen on July 12, 2012 2:01 PM:

    I think it's true that women deemed physically unattractive have a tougher time than men deemed physically unattractive, but I agree with Tina Fey that good-looking men have it great. Jesus Christ could rise again, personally bless Mitt Romney, and promise to heal the sick as long as Rommey is prez, and Romney would still only get 25% of the popular vote if he looked like Wallace Shawn.

  • Diane Rodriguez on July 12, 2012 2:04 PM:

    I concur with Kim's comments. The picture forces you to confront your own biases. Generally, women who hold higher status positions have 2 roads: to either be sexually provocative or gender neutral. There is too much of other peoples' baggage in the pathway to success. I am retired (58) from a senior management position in law enforcement and I saw the paradox women with ambition face. I'm not "offended" by the picture. The situation won't change until we acknowledge the issues.

  • ceilidth on July 12, 2012 2:05 PM:

    Don't buy it one bit. Women with grapefruits surgically placed on their chests are not provocative in a way that deepens our discussion of women in the role of political analysts. Stockholm syndrome is the appropriate phrase for Kims response. And I'll say it again: why are there so few women as compared to men writing for Washington Monthly? Now there's something worthwhile for Kim and Kilgore to consider.

  • Skip on July 12, 2012 2:07 PM:

    I clicked over to take a look at the picture.
    Does the picture somehow call into question the validity of the article? No. Given the article is about intelligent women in DC, not so much about breasts and interesting bits of clothing, does the photo represent the article? No. As photos in print are used as visual attractors, subject non sequitur, does this photo attract a readers eye? Yes. Will said eye follow then to the article? Huh, what...?

  • Mitch on July 12, 2012 2:09 PM:

    The juxtaposition between the photo and the content of the article struck me as, well, part of the point. It visually illustrated that society seems to say a woman MUST be either a sex-object or an intelligent individual. We're humans. We can be both; we can be neither. There is nothing wrong with physical beauty. There is nothing wrong with women who are smarter than men. That so many intelligent commentators focused more on the picture than on the content of the article speaks volumes about human nature.

    The fact that the commentators see an attractive woman and throw a fit because it's "titillating" is kind of outrageous to me. Pictures are worth a thousand words, to toss out a cliché. This one says to me: Are you just seeing a beautiful lady - or are you going to "Think" beyond that?

    Pardon my crudeness: It's damned stupid to become twisted into a pretzel and to act all butthurt* over simple things like this. It's the leftie equivalent of the faux rage spewed by Tea Partiers.

    It's a waste of time and energy. Instead of spewing HULK SMASH worthy rage, we need to focus on how to improve the world we share. And, just as importantly, people need to learn to lighten the hell up. Life is hard and painful enough, without adding pointless outbursts of fury to the mix.

    Or maybe I'm just too young to be offended by seeing a lovely woman in a tank top. /shrug

    My point: We all have VASTLY more important things to worry about.

    *Butthurt (Urban Dictionary definition #1): An inappropriately strong negative emotional response from a perceived personal insult. Characterized by strong feelings of shame. Frequently associated with a cessation of communication and overt hostility towards the "aggressor."

  • SecularAnimist on July 12, 2012 2:18 PM:

    If Dennis Kucinich looked like Robert Redford, he would have been elected president in a landslide in 2004.

  • Daryl McCullough on July 12, 2012 2:24 PM:

    Women have to live up to impossibly high standards compared with men. For a man, being smart is considered an achievement in itself--nobody would necessarily expect him to also be good looking, athletic and good in bed. But the image of the successful woman is someone who has it all: brains, beauty, athleticism, sexiness.

    I suppose that's some kind of improvement over an expectation that women only need to be good-looking, and nothing else matters, but it's a lot more pressure.

  • troglodyte on July 12, 2012 2:49 PM:

    Its a complicated issue, and hard to make a comment without offending a fellow commentor. With that disclaimer, let me note that a physically attractive woman should be able to wear sexy casual clothes without males taking her for a bimbo. In the photo the model has chosen an T-shirt epigram and eyewear that declares that she has brains. Only a testosterone-addled idiot might ignore that message. If she were working for a think tank, the clothes would be more conservative than a tank top, but a woman should not need to wear her hair in a bun to be taken seriously.

  • Tracy on July 12, 2012 3:10 PM:

    It's disheartening to see women's bodies constantly pimped out to sell cars, beer, stirrup pants from American Apparel. It's even worse to see the Washington Monthly use a pair of augmented breasts as click bait.

  • SecularAnimist on July 12, 2012 3:22 PM:

    troglodyte wrote: "In the photo the model has chosen an T-shirt epigram and eyewear that declares that she has brains."

    Assuming the woman in the photo is in fact a "model", it is unlikely that she "chose" anything about the photo -- not only the T-shirt and eyewear, but her makeup and hairstyle and hair color and perhaps even the color of her eyes would have been chosen by the director of the photo session, and she was probably even coached on her facial expression.

    Tracy wrote: "It's even worse to see the Washington Monthly use a pair of augmented breasts as click bait."

    And how exactly can you can tell that her breasts have been "augmented"? Or is that just a sexist prejudice towards any woman with large breasts?

  • troglodyte on July 12, 2012 3:34 PM:

    Dear Secular Animist,

    You are likely correct that the photographee (maybe a model, maybe not) had her clothes and eyewear chosen for her. My point still stands. Woe to the professor who fails to take seriously a female student who dresses in a similar manner. Students dont choose their clothes in the morning just to suit the 15 minutes that they might spend in a prof's office in the late afternoon.

  • TCinLA on July 12, 2012 3:35 PM:

    I recall back in 1967, at the national convention of a then-well-known radical student association, Jane Adams and Marilyn Buck made the first formal presentation of what could be called a declaration of women's liberation in radical politics and what that would mean. A large majority of the "radical", "intellectual," "socially-advanced" males in attendance were jumping up and down shouting "I stand firmly erect in my support of pussy power!" Today, those men in that audience who did that who I still know will deny the event ever happened (and they have - mostly - become "role models" of modern, liberated males), but those of us males there who didn't participate and were offended do remember. And in 45 years of politics since, it really hasn't changed other than to make itself less obvious, like white racism and ethnic "jokes."

    So I for one take the picture as a political Rorschach Test, and find it unsurprising who is "offended" by it. It's sort of like the closeted gays who want to control everyone else's sexuality because they're so fearful of their own.

  • Skip on July 12, 2012 4:04 PM:

    Would the reverse be true?

    Slap a low-cut THINK t-shirt and a pair of intellectual glasses on Mitt, would his picture draw the eye to an article exclaiming about the general lack of male intelligence in Washington DC?

  • Dervin on July 12, 2012 4:55 PM:

    There's an internet meme titles "I love Nerdy guys with abs."

    I guess we can create a new meme of "I love Policy Women with D-Cups"

  • billb on July 12, 2012 11:54 PM:

    It is a timeless issue , attractive peeps get the attention of their peers , and can often lead based on only appearance. We pick ronny Reagun , and GW and Billy bob Clinton
    based on appearance too. You all ogle Barack on the beach w/out a shirt. Yes these are accomplished hard working folks , but so were Condi , and Mrs Albright , and AG Reno , and no one said they could not do the job. Do looks affect us ... yes , but if you quit whining and work hard , you might get where you are going.

  • jcberk on July 13, 2012 1:35 AM:

    Anne Kim's last paragraph is my problem with the photo: the photo doesn't represent the content of the article well, so it does her argument a disservice. Kim "spen[t] most of the piece writing about a point that many commenters ignore," and that point is being ignored because of the photo. We aren't discussing the structural aspects of the problem, even if the article has been viewed more widely than it otherwise might have been, so her piece isn't having the desired effect. That makes the photo a bad choice.

  • Okie Twang on July 13, 2012 8:20 AM:

    I was reading the article while on a commercial flight. When I turned the page and saw the picture, my first thought was to turn the magazine so that the woman seated next to me would not think my reading habits objectionable. The picture made me uncomfortable, which was the whole point, right? I found the article inspiring and depressing; the photo just reminded me of the latter.

  • ceilidth on July 13, 2012 9:37 AM:

    Just did a little research on Washington Monthly: 5 of the 18 articles in the table of contents for the magazine were written by women. Zero of the first 30 blog posts in the blogs section were written by women. Are you going to use the old saw, "We couldn't find a qualified woman?" Yes, I know you sometimes use a woman to write the weekend stuff for Political Animal, but that's no excuse for so little regular writing by women on the blogs. That's why I found the picture so distasteful. Basically, it looks like you're yukking it up at your own bad behavior and, sadly, Kim buys into it lock stock and barrel.