Is the Media Sexist? Or Just Banal?

Doug Feith's replacement is prettier and softer spoken.

A goodly portion of my Twitter feed is buzzing about a WaPo profile on Michele  Flournoy that I found unremarkable when it was published ten days ago. In particular, they’re honing in on this:

She’s tall and slender with a regal manner. She often wears pearls. Soft-spoken and understated, she is described by her co-workers as brainy rather than blustery. She talks slowly, frequently stopping to think. Her careful speaking style differs wildly from that of Douglas J. Feith, who held her job during the George W. Bush administration and came under fire for his role in building the administration’s case for the invasion of Iraq.

Spencer Ackerman sums of the thoughts of many with a blog post titled “Shit I Wouldn’t Be Able To Tolerate If I Were A Woman.”

The pearls! Dammit, I missed the pearls! And how could I forget to describe Flournoy’s body? I want to apologize to my Washingtonian editor, Shane Harris, for this embarassing lack of judgment. I figured it was more important to delve deeply into Flournoy’s ideas and career history, and otherwise explain why she’s likely to become defense secretary someday. Of course, the pearls explain it all.

If I was a woman working in the national security field, this kind of shit would have me climbing up a clock tower with a clean rifle. Why is a woman subcabinet official getting profiled in the Post’s Style section, anyway? Is it really not possible to grapple with this woman’s ideas because she’s wearing pearls? Really? When you start from the premise that Flournoy’s going to run the Pentagon someday, shouldn’t that incline you to explore whether that’s, like, a good idea?

But, as Spencer has already noted, this is in the Style section. The offending passage is on page 2 of 4 of a feature on Flournoy’s rise, focusing on her transformation into the most powerful woman in Pentagon history from the improbable beginning as a kid at Beverly Hills High School who went to school with Shaun Cassidy and whose dad was a cinematographer on “The Odd Couple.”

It’s true that women get a lot of this sort of treatment in press coverage. Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Michele Bachmann come quickly to mind as significant political figures whose appearance and style get outsized attention.

But feature-type pieces  routinely rely on novel-style description, even when dealing with powerful male figures. For example, a recent Esquire piece on Jon Huntsman sets the scene thusly:

He’s built like a long-distance runner. He’s wearing a dark suit, a white shirt, a blue tie. His graying hair is neatly parted. He looks rich, which he is.

It continues:

Huntsman might look like HBO’s version of a president — flagpole posture, great hair, lean face — but he gives the impression that his potential tenure would make for the most boring movie imaginable. A Jon Huntsman presidency would be a mathematical proof. It would be like watching water without waves.

A piece from over the weekend on Mitt Romney from the Independent begins:

If you created an identikit portrait of the ideal candidate for the American presidency, you’d come up with something pretty close to Willard Mitt Romney.

First of all, his pedigree – his father was George Romney, business magnate, governor and presidential candidate in his time, and idolised by the son whose career uncannily mirrors his own. Mitt looks the part, too. At 64, he’s slender and handsome, his dark hair flecked with white on the sideburns. Indeed, in 2002, People magazine named him one of the 50 Most Beautiful People in the World.

His family, it goes without saying, is also picture perfect. Ann, his wife of 42 years, not only has borne him five equally handsome sons; she is a remarkable woman in her own right, who has overcome cancer and multiple sclerosis.

Every third piece on Rick Perry mentions his hair; an even higher proportion of the pieces on Tim Pawlenty and Mike Spence mentioned their lack of it.

WaPo’s Robin Givhan seems to have devoted her entire career to this sort of thing. See Condoleezza Rice’s Commanding Clothes (which I reacted to almost seven years ago much in that way Spencer does the Flournoy piece),  Dick Cheney’s Auschwitz parkaJohn Roberts’ Stepford ChildrenJohn Bolton’s Senate-defying haircut, and Elena Kagan’s uncrossed legs.

The bottom line is that even respectable media outlets have style and gossip sections and otherwise focus on “light” fare in addition to more substantive commentary. Defense policy wonks are decidedly not the audience for most articles in the Washington Post. That’s almost surely a shrewd strategy given how few of us there are.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Tsar Nicholas says:

    They’re banal. Fatuous. Poorly educated. Not particularly intelligent. They have very limited real world experience. They’re politically biased. They’re frivolous. And those are the editors and the executives!

  2. Rob in CT says:

    How about both?

  3. John Peabody says:

    John Huntsman has “flagpole posture”!!?? Oh, my, my, my.

  4. It’s the banality that attracts the viewers, though.

    People would rather read about Flournoy’s appearance, or Condi’s clothes than an in-depth examination of US military and foreign policy. The media goes with what sells, and it’s the mind-numbingly dumb stuff that sells best.

    In other words, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

  5. Hey Norm says:

    As long as she doesn’t manipulate and cherry-pick and stove-pipe intelligence in order to lead us into an un-necessary war…like Feith and his masters did…I don’t give a damn what kind of necklace she wears. Feith couldn’t say no to Dick.

  6. ponce says:

    In other words, we have met the enemy, and he is us.

    How true.

    How long has it been since OTB posted an in-depth examination of US military and foreign policy?

    The trouble with the lowest common denominator reporting is anyone can do it…and they do.

  7. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: I routinely write posts of military affairs and foreign policy. How “in depth” are you expecting on a blog? 800-1200 words is pretty much the max for the genre.

  8. Drew says:

    Drew’s Johnson talking. THAT’s pretty?

    PS – How in the world does a poll say LSU and Bama are #1 and #2……..and then Bama loses to LSU in OT by a field goal………..and they drop to, what, #5? I hold no brief for Bama, but this is just pure crap.

  9. ponce says:

    How “in depth” are you expecting on a blog? 800-1200 words is pretty much the max for the genre.

    Ever read The Belgravia Dispatch?

  10. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: Ever notice he posts about once every 9 months?

    I view this as a rolling conversation rather than a place to post mini-dissertations. I tend to pitch long articles elsewhere and promote them here.

  11. michael reynolds says:

    I have no objection to description, especially in a Style section piece. So long as within that section they write the same sorts of detail about men, I don’t think it’s sexist.

    In fact, I wish feature writers had more stylistic freedom, assuming always a degree of talent. For the record, I did some style-type feature writing at one point early on in my career. I hated it. The conventions are too limiting, the editing too restrictive. I couldn’t figure out how to make it not suck.

  12. grumpy realist says:

    One reason I miss more and more Steve Gilliard. He wrote marvelous articles about the US military, strategy, and foreign policy. (And his analysis of what was going to happen to Giuliani once Mr. “9-11 and a verb” actually started running was dead on. It was, as Steve pointed out, a case where you couldn’t see the flesh for the knives that had been inserted by NYCers.)

  13. ponce says:

    I tend to pitch long articles elsewhere and promote them here.


    It sounds like you’re saying anything you write that’s worth reading you post elsewhere.

  14. James Joyner says:

    @ponce: While I’m not as prolific as I once was, owing mostly to increased optempo at the office and the vagaries of parenthood, I write quite a number of longish thought pieces here. You’re free to decide for yourself whether you find them worth reading.

    I use the blog both in the original sense of the format–as a log of interesting things I’ve read online–and as a running conversation with a readership.

    I make a living as a foreign policy analyst, so I publish most of my foreign policy analysis either on my employer’s site or, preferably, national and international outlets. It’s just more professionally rewarding to publish at those venues than at a blog that I maintain myself. To the extent I think OTB readers will be interested, I link and excerpt them here to get reader feedback.