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Posts Tagged ‘Katie Couric’

Is it the end, or just beginning?

Ye olde End of Men is in the news again; this time, author Stephanie Coontz is weighing in on how the headlines proclaiming The End of Men might be a tad premature. It’s territory we’ve covered before, to be sure, but there’s a new turf worth tilling. Namely, when she writes:

One thing standing in the way of further progress for many men is the same obstacle that held women back for so long: overinvestment in their gender identity instead of their individual personhood.

Sorry to interrupt, but: DING DING DING!

Men are now experiencing a set of limits–externally enforced as well as self-imposed–strikingly similar to the ones Betty Friedan set out to combat in 1963, when she identified a ‘feminine mystique’ that constrained women’s self-image and options.

Clearly, it’s no longer 1963, but Coontz hits on something there that I think is still profoundly in evidence, particularly among the women we call “Undecided.” Yes, we have options the women who clandestinely passed The Feminine Mystique around may have only dreamed about, but that’s but half the story. We write often about how, somewhere along the timeline of women’s liberation, the message that we can have it all morphed into an oppressive belief that we should be able to do it all, and, when I read those above words of Coontz’s, I thought: Yes, yes, and yes.

Because I think, to borrow her words, a certain investment in our gender identity is what keeps us so dearly invested in doing it all. When you read articles about how to take the pressure off, among the tips will invariably be something along the lines of Ditch the stuff you don’t care that much about. Which is fine advice. (Um, we’ve probably offered it ourselves.) But it’s hard advice to follow. Perhaps you don’t give two craps about baking, yet you feel a bad mother if you send your little one to the bake sale with storebought (and Crisco-frosted) cupcakes. Maybe you don’t even want kids, but feel pressure tied to the belief that “real” women are maternal (and bake their own cupcakes). Perhaps you don’t care about clothing or makeup, but you feel you must look a certain way to be accepted as a woman. Maybe you’d rather take a stick to the eye than spend a perfectly good Saturday dusting, but you have friends coming over and you just know they’ll think a little bit less of you if they see how you really live.

Interestingly, I think that the more successful we are in the not-traditionally-female aspects of our lives (read: our careers), the more intensely we feel we must make sure we measure up on the traditional Lady-o-meter. Just last week, there were a couple of headlines about very successful women–Katie Couric and Stacy London–coming out about their struggles with eating disorders; in fact, among women, eating disorders have long been associated with an overachieving personality type. And have you ever noticed how rare it is to see a successful woman who is anything less than impeccably groomed? (Not least because when said grooming–or style; see: Hillary’s pantsuits–falls just a little bit short, the backlash is lethal.) Back in the 80s, when I was in grade school, my mom was in grad school “busting my ass,” she says. And yet, “I cooked dinner every night, drove the car pool AND was your room mother.” It’s as though we’re willing to push the envelope… but not too far. So we overcompensate, wearing heels that are lethal, killing ourselves to keep a house that’ll pass the white-glove test, and whipping up organic and healthy–yet impressively epicurean–delights for dinner. On a Tuesday.

It’s too tricky to offer a simple solution–and it’s made trickier thanks to the judgment women face from other women and society at large, of course–but surely there’s some wisdom in flipping Coontz’s equation and consciously putting more investment in our “individual personhood” as opposed to our “gender identity.” In worrying less about what it means to be a woman, and more about what it means to be our self. Or maybe just thinking a little bit about why you’re killing yourself over that dinner… and, perhaps, instituting a new tradition, called Take-Out Tuesday.

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Isn’t it funny, at a time that’s been described as The End of Men And The Rise of Women, during an election season that’s been touted as hinging on the “female vote,” during an era in which young adult humans of the female persuasion have never known a world in which Gloria Steinem wasn’t an icon, how little things have changed?

I write (today) not about politics, though. Or at least not ostensibly. Today what has me fired up are a couple of “most-emailed” headlines that make me want to stage an Extraordinary Act/Everyday Rebellion in the form of hurling a (hardcover) copy of The Beauty Myth through the television.

Exhibit A: Journalist Katie Couric debuts her new eponymous daytime talk show with a big “get.” With an election right around the corner, who’d she score? Jessica Simpson, there for the much-anticipated debut of her post-baby body.

Exhibit B: Original Bachelorette Trista Sutter, taking to Good Morning America to discuss the plastic surgery procedures she treated herself to as a pre-40th birthday gift (and which she enlisted Entertainment Tonight to document). Procedures which left her with an allergic reaction, the treatment of which left her suffering from a severe depression. But, hey, she says, it was totally “worth it.”

Something is seriously wrong with this picture. And you know, I didn’t bring up The Beauty Myth for my health or because it earns me angry feminist points: the entire premise of the (excellent) book is that, as women have gained more power and independence, the pressure to adhere to certain standards of beauty has intensified. Sound familiar? You bet your Spanx it does. But here’s the thing: The Beauty Myth was published in 1991. That’s over twenty years ago. Before Bump Alerts and mommy jobs (aka the boob job/tummy tuck combo) and, yes, Spanx. And I’d argue that not only has that dynamic not changed, it’s continued to intensify.

Women are gaining ever more power and independence, and the pressure to look perfect (let alone to “be perfect“) is more intense than ever. And hey, when we’re all preoccupied with achieving the perfect beach body (or getting our body back) or waxing ourselves hairless or learning how to create this season’s smoky eye, who has the energy to deal with the stuff that matters? Who has the time to remember there is stuff that matters?

And I think there are parallels to be made to what’s happening in politics. (I know, I said I’d leave politics out of it for today. Sorry, I lied. So sue me.) With the legislative changes those on the far right are proposing (and making), namely: making it more difficult for a woman to get birth control by making it okay for a pharmacist to refuse to give her her prescription on the grounds of the pharmacist’s religious beliefs, or chipping away at abortion rights–by enforcing waiting periods and invasive ultrasounds–and continuing to base campaigns on the promise that they’ll overturn Roe V. Wade, when you hear women like Sandra Fluke say that we’re being forced to fight battles we won a long time ago, well, you have to agree that she’s on to something.

If I didn’t know any better, I’d say it was all a part of some grand and evil conspiracy. Some plot by those fearing they’re losing their grip on power, clinging by their fingernails to a status quo that’s slipping away, fighting to keep that power structure in place with everything that they have.

But I do know better. And that’s not the whole story (though it’s certainly several lengthy chapters of it). The other part, the darker part, is this: when it comes to the ever-loving Beauty Myth, we buy into it. Boogeymen like the patriarchy and marketers and Republicans and Archie Bunker nostalgics all have a role to play, of course — and play it they will. But when we buy in, expecting perfection not just of our reality-TV-starring sisters but of ourselves as well, we all lose.

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Be authentic. What does that even mean, anyway? Not a whole hell of a lot, according to Stephanie Rosenbloom in this Sunday’s New York Times. The word, she says, has been watered down to the point of meaninglessness, like so many white wine spritzers. Everyone from Anderson Cooper to Sarah Ferguson to Katie Couric to Michelle Bachmann to the Pope have claimed the descriptor, generally while in the service of selling themselves. (Sales. What’s more inauthentic than that?)

And, as Rosenbloom’s piece points out and as we’ve written before, we’re complicit in this faux-thenticity, too. Think about your Facebook profile–and now imagine what it would look like if it were truly authentic. Take mine, for example: instead of that cute profile pic of me smiling broadly in New Orleans alongside a status update alluding to a highbrow day of writing, my pic might show me sitting at my computer, in the chair I’ve spent so much time in, I’ve literally worn the finish off of it. And if I were to be authentic about it, today’s status update–rather than being glamorous, pithy, or intelligent–might read: Unshowered. Writer’s block. Dining on a spoonful of peanut butter. Had I documented my status last night, I would have seemed the epitome of uncool, when my neighbor’s band practice inspired not my admiration of his creativity or his nascent musical skills, but a lengthy debate on whether or not to call the cops. (I didn’t. Score another one for inauthenticity. They were more terrible than they were loud–and they were window-rattlingly loud.)

Writing in the New York Times Magazine, Peggy Orenstein once confessed that, while spending some glorious time with her little girl listening to E.B. White reading Trumpet of the Swan, a nasty thought intruded: How will I tweet this? She admits that the tweet she decided on (“Listening to E.B. White’s Trumpet of the Swan with Daisy. Slow and sweet.”) was “not really about my own impressions. It was about how I imagined—and wanted—others to react to them.”

Marketing folks might say we’re branding ourselves in our profile pictures, our status updates, our tweets. We say that maybe we’re feeding the iconic self, the self-image we’ve constructed, which, in ways big and small, is the face of our great expectations. (She’s kind of a tyrant, too.) So why do we do it? Are we so desperate for approval that we’d rather pretend to be someone else than our, ahem, authentic self? Women, after all, are raised to be pleasers. Do we feel guilty about veering off the pre-approved path? Where did we become convinced that the faux is any more acceptable than the real? And why, oh why, do we so readily buy into the idea that the images everyone else is presenting are any more real than our own?

Why is it so hard to embrace the idea that, as Wavy Gravy–he of LSD and ice cream fame–put it, we’re all just bozos on the bus, so we might as well sit back and enjoy the ride?

…which is well and good in theory, but who wants to admit to being a bozo? We have images to uphold! And whatever your role, the performance is remarkably similar. Someone asks how you’re doing; you say fine. You ask her; she says fine. Fine, then! We worry what other people think (though we’d never admit it), and, of course, we want to be happy, confident, competent, and successful. So we pretend we are. And, compounding the issue is the fact that the happy, confident, competent, successful self is the self everyone else shows to us, too, which compels us to keep our dirty little secret under even deeper wraps. If she (and she and she) has it together, what the hell is the matter with me??

It’s the open secret Rumi wrote about (and to which Elizabeth Lesser makes beautiful reference here), yet, centuries later, we still feel compelled to keep. And that’s understandable. Who wants to admit to being afraid, uncertain, overwhelmed, clumsy, neurotic, or prone to saying the wrong thing? The thing is, though, all of those things are part of the human condition–and those things and the good things aren’t mutually exclusive. And so why should claiming them be a negative? On the contrary: I think there’s a promise of something pretty awesome that comes when we’re able to own it all. The sky doesn’t fall, but, like the curtain hiding the Wizard of Oz, the blinders do.

And then what might we see? Well, for one thing, maybe a willingness to own our complex, dualistic, not always delightful but utterly human nature can make our choices a little bit clearer. With no one to impress, no images to uphold, we’ve got a lot less to factor in. There’s a freedom there. And power, too: because when we are willing to come out of the I’m Fine! closet, maybe our friends will join us. And that, I’d bet, would make for one hell of a party.

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Amid all this talk about whether women need to be more like men to make it in a man’s world, along comes Katie Couric in a sexy fashion shoot for the March issue of Harper’s Bazaar, due out Feb. 16.

Guts ball — or career poison? Does it diminish her credibility or, in an unexpected way, add to it? In an odd pop-culture kind of way, is she giving women permission to be themselves?

Clearly, Couric has made it in a so-called man’s world. And in this photo-spread, it’s pretty clear she’s not trying to be like one. There she is in a short and sexy one-shoulder cocktail dress. With smoky kohl-rimmed eyes. And look, are those Christian Louboutains? There she is again, wearing a don’t-mess-with-me mini-skirted black suit by Giorgio Armani. She stares right at the camera. Not flirty. Not flinty.

But on top of her game.

It’s a combination of sex and power, writes Robin Givhan in the Washington Post, who finds the pictures:

… an audacious celebration of a powerful woman as a boldly sexy one, too.

There’s nothing reserved or hesitant in the sex appeal on display in the four-page story about Couric. The images are a full-throated, even exaggerated, rebuke of the notion that a woman must dress in a prescribed manner — Suze Orman suits, full-coverage blouses, sensible heels — to protect her IQ, her résumé and her place in a male-dominated work culture.

Post- or pre-feminist? You tell me. Obviously, there is/will be backlash. Like this from Jezebel.com:

This argument feels like one of those moments where counterintuitive logic comes full circle to just plain retrogressiveness. I support Katie Couric’s right to pose as sexily as she wants to. Fashion shoots are fun and she looks great at whatever age. It’s part of her job, like it or not, to be someone people want to look at or watch. But do we have to pretend that the display of the traditional beauty of someone on television, as seen in a fashion magazine, is somehow fresh and progressive? Show me Candy Crowley in Balenciaga (or, um, in sweatpants?) and maybe I’ll be impressed.

And yet, stilettos notwithstanding, the fashion shoot, and reaction to it, makes you wonder all sorts of things. Do women have to downplay their sexuality to be taken seriously? If they don’t, are they playing to some regressive male fantasy? Are women still judged on their looks as much as on their abilites?

Or is this sexy shoot of the first successful female network news anchor none of the above? Is it really about seizing our identity as women without apologies, like Justice Sotomayor’s fire engined red nail enamel, a subtle sign that, as Gloria Steinem suggested in Shannon’s post from yesterday, it’s time to make the world fit women, rather than the other way around.

Now clearly, Gloria would have major issue with the stilettos. And probably with the fashion shoot itself. But with the underlying message?

It’s worth a reminder that Couric started her network job wearing age and gender-appropriate twin sets and blazers and, until the Palin interview that cemented her career, was considered something of a lightweight. You have to wonder if maybe what her fashion spread shows is that she has arrived and she knows it. From the Washington Post:

Now, in 2010, Couric has pronounced herself sexy in the Bazaar photographs. After breaking ground in network news, after having folks debate whether she should have worn a white blazer on her debut show — as if anything but black or navy proclaimed her less serious — there are these images. Unapologetically, forcefully, I-dare-you, sexy. In each one, Couric looks strong and capable. Capable of what, of course, is the underlying question.

Certainly, some will see the pictures as further proof of why she is all wrong for the job. They will probably be the same people for whom Couric has accumulated a personal work wardrobe of blacks, grays and pinstripes — a more sophisticated, yet still reserved, alternative to the news-anchor cliche of Crayola-colored blazers.

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I suppose it should come as no surprise, what with the nasty brouhaha that erupted three years ago when Katie Couric was named anchor for CBS’ 60 Minutes, that the recent announcement about Diane Sawyer taking over Charlie Gibson’s anchor post on ABC World News upon Gibson’s retirement was met with a scathing round of… er, analysis.

While the Women’s Media Center dubbed it a “watershed moment,” the Philadelphia Inquirer‘s Karen Heller took a less optimistic tone, all but calling nightly television news an endangered species, Sawyer’s appointment an overhyped boobie prize:

The nightly newscast is also the Metamucil half-hour, as the pharma ads reflect. The three newscasts collectively attract 20 million viewers, half the size of the audience 15 years ago, with a median age of 61.3, hence all the health coverage. Claiming Sawyer’s appointment “historic,” as many have, is misleading. It’s a job many men, including Gibson, no longer want.

So, while we all know the fate of the numbers Couric found upon assuming her position, from what Heller says, it seems like dwindling ratings should have been an all but foregone conclusion (and she may be right: I mean, how many people do you know who get their news at 5:30, on TV? Thought so). And Katie was a convenient scapegoat, made all the more convenient because she was a trailblazer, a first.

But that’s just the half of it.

I was surprised to find this dim assessment on from Courtney Martin, on the website Feministing:

Sawyer seems like a perfectly decent interviewer and a hardworking journalist, but I’m also struck that she fits into the “NewsMommy model” that Ann reported on back when Couric was chosen–essentially that the networks are choosing women who are non-threatening, aka maternal, for the top positions so as not to freak out viewers still not used to the idea that women can be assertive, independent, and–gasp–childless.

First, lest I forget, Diane Sawyer doesn’t even have children. As Amanda Fortini put it on Salon’s Broadsheet:

Sawyer is many things–smart, competent, often witty, exceedingly attractive–but “maternal” is not an adjective that springs to mind. You might even call her telepresence the opposite of maternal: glossy, self-contained, occasionally remote… So what, exactly, is it that qualified her as maternal? That she is a woman of a certain age? This is the sort of stereotyping feminists have long worked to combat.

In my opinion, Fortini hit the nail on the head, although I don’t think Martin’s post was quite as dismissive as Fortini took it to be. But really, aren’t we beyond all this? What’s with the use of the word “mommy” in that context–as if it’s a synonym for airhead or lightweight? I’ll concede that morning news shows like Good Morning America are to news as Pop-Tarts are to breakfast, but Diane Sawyer has a pretty impressive resume behind that pretty face (is it the pretty that’s the problem?): she has 30 years of network experience, was an aide to Nixon, she’s interviewed the last four presidents and their wives, as well as world leaders such as Ahmadinejad, Sadaam Hussein, Fidel Castro, Robert McNamara, and Manuel Noriega to name but a few. She’s covered the State Department, and was one of the first female correspondents on 60 Minutes. And, um, Charlie Gibson seems like a nice guy and everything, but a hard-hitter? Not so much.

While Sawyer’s new gig may indeed be a boobie prize, perceived as but a pit stop on the way to the Metamucil aisle, I’m struck by all the analysis. Because, had some guy been given the job, we’d all be on the same side: where are the women? Perhaps we’d be more focused on this sobering fact: according to the Women’s Media Center, “women hold only 3 percent of the ‘clout’ positions in media.” But now that she’s there, the best we can do is to consume rumors of catfights between she and Couric, pick apart the career choices she’s made, what she looks like, and each other.

What will it take for us to stop judging each other and get on the same team? To stop reaching for the shards of shattered glass from those ceilings our sisters have worked so hard to crack and using them as weapons against each other, rather than sweeping them up, admiring the fact that we might be able to make it through a little easier, and getting on with our own lives and the ceilings we’ll inevitably face? Equality? Yet another reason to keep working for it–and, frankly, as good as any.

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Apparently, pot bellies are the new cool. If you happen to be a young male hipster.

Stay with me here: This is all about the way the media treat women as opposed to men, and why it appears that women can’t win.

According to The New York Times Style section, the Ralph Kramden look is In. And the growing presence of women in the workplace is as much to blame as Pabst Blue Ribbon. I don’t make this stuff up. From the story:

Too pronounced to be blamed on the slouchy cut of a T-shirt, too modest in size to be termed a proper beer gut, developed too young to come under the heading of a paunch, the Ralph Kramden is everywhere to be seen lately, or at least it is in the vicinity of the Brooklyn Flea in Fort Greene, the McCarren Park Greenmarket and pretty much any place one is apt to encounter fans of Grizzly Bear.

What the trucker cap and wallet chain were to hipsters of a moment ago, the Kramden is to what my colleague Mike Albo refers to as the “coolios” of now. Leading with a belly is a male privilege of long standing, of course, a symbol of prosperity in most cultures and of freedom from anxieties about body image that have plagued women since Eve.

Until recently, men were under no particular obligation to exhibit bulging deltoids and shredded abdominals; that all changed, said David Zinczenko, the editor of Men’s Health, when women moved into the work force in numbers. “The only ripples Ralph Kramden” and successors like Mike Brady of “The Brady Bunch” had to demonstrate were in their billfolds, said Mr. Zinczenko, himself a dogged crusader in the battle of the muffin top. “But that traditional male role has changed.”

Does this mean Macy’s double-truck ads of edgy young men will feature beer bellies, unbuttoned shirts, straining T-shirts with ironic sayings and girl-cut jeans that nonetheless sag below the gut? The new measure of cool? Oh, the irony.

Because for women, the reverse is still painfully true. We may have begun to bring home the bacon — but clearly, we’re not supposed to look like we eat any of it. At least as far as media images are concerned.

We all know that photo retouching has long been a staple of women’s mags, and other kinds of advertising. Need a reminder? You’ll find a before and after retouching of Faith Hill on a Redbook cover, courtesy of Jezebel, here. And don’t forget the way Katie Couric was retouched in the CBS News promos right before she took over as anchor. Like magic, she lost a quick 20.

But nothing brings the point home faster than the latest cover of Self Magazine, where the photo of normal-woman-sized Kelly Clarkson has been retouched to make her look sleek and svelte in — what else — white jeans. You want irony? How about the teaser running across the bottom of the cover — and Clarkson’s thighs: “Total Body Confidence.”

You want more irony? Salon.com’s Broadsheet not only posts a video of the real life Clarkson, as opposed to the glamour shot, but also quotes editor Lucy Danziger’s rationale for the retouch:

As she explains, a fashion photograph of a hair-styled, made-up, retouched celebrity is “not, as in a news photograph, journalism.” Fair enough. But while insisting that “the truest beauty is the kind that comes from within” and that “Kelly says she doesn’t care what people think of her weight,” Danziger explains that the cover photo is meant to “inspire women to want to be their best.”

…After boasting of altering Clarkson’s appearance to make her look her “personal best,” Danziger says “in the sense that Kelly is the picture of confidence, and she truly is, then I think this photo is the truest we have ever put out there on the newsstand.”

… Adding fuel to the dustup, Self’s editorial assistant Ashley Mateo blogs furthermore that “No one wants to see a giant picture of some star’s cellulite on the cover of a monthly mag — that’s what we have tabloids for!”

Wait. There’s more. We all know how supermodels Cindy Crawford, Amber Valetta et al. appear on the page. Usually. Here’s how they look sans make-up and retouching courtesy Harper’s Bazaar, courtesy New York Magazine. Still beautiful. Yet, fashion mags still taunt us with their retouched images of impossibility.

And there’s this: Politics Daily heralded Hillary for sticking up for herself in the Congo. Then wondered, in WTF Fashion, what the Daily Beast’s Tina Brown was thinking in an interview later with Joe Scarborough:

Sadly, despite feminism’s long strides in the political evolution of our species, the way some women respond to other women still has a ways to go. I wasn’t surprised when I heard from a colleague Thursday morning that celebrity editor Tina Brown, while seemingly being supportive of Mrs. Clinton, had just called her contemporary superwoman “fat.” In the actual quote on Morning Joe, the Daily Beast editor-in-chief, who is a slim 56 years old, said she believed after a seven-nation, 11-day tour of the formerly dark continent, the sexagenarian secretary must be “feeling fat.” Brown posited to Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski that perhaps Clinton, having stayed in Mogadishu a day too long, needed to “get back to the gym.”

Finally, there’s this, from the Daily Mail online: When it comes to women’s tennis, center court at Wimbledon goes to the pretty girls, rather than the top seeds. And according to Jessica Faye Carter on True/Slant, the emphasis on looks, rather than ability, is starting to infiltrate women’s golf as well.

Funny, when you juxtapose this all with those pot-bellied hipsters. But not really.

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