Hillary Clinton: A Marked Woman

The Drudge Report gets, um, props for breaking the story of the week on Monday: it ran  this picture of  the Secretary of State, front and center without makeup. Forget about Chen Guancheng, this is a national shanda!


As Erin Gloria Ryan at Jezebel wrote:

I guess we’re all supposed to gasp and feel faint, to acknowledge that yes, Hillary Clinton is a real live human with monstrous, terrible flaws, and this is the pictorial proof of that. And now she should hang her head in shame and Matt Drudge wins, and he’s automatically King of America forever.

Let’s set aside, for the moment, the fact that we should all look so good–and be so healthy–at 64 (which, for the record is still in a woman’s prime….).  Watching that picture go viral, I recalled Deborah Tannen writing in the New York Times Magazine that  no matter what women wear they are “marked.” That’s linguistics-speak for the idea that every choice a woman makes about her public presentation–how she dresses, how she wears her hair, whether she wears makeup and now whether she botoxes etc –makes a STATEMENT about who she is (as opposed to that statement being made by her actions, ideas, opinions etc)  that is judged, scrutinized and held up for public consumption/discussion. Looking around at an academic conference, Tannen noted that each of the women:

…had to make decisions about hair, clothing, makeup and accessories, and each decision carried meaning. Every style available to us was marked. The men in our group had made decisions, too, but the range from which they chose was incomparably narrower. Men can choose styles that are marked, but they don’t have to, and in this group none did. Unlike the women, they had the option of being unmarked.

Take the men’s hair styles. There was no marine crew cut or oily longish hair falling into eyes, no asymmetrical, two-tiered construction to swirl over a bald top. One man was unabashedly bald; the others had hair of standard length, parted on one side, in natural shades of brown or gray or graying. Their hair obstructed no views, left little to toss or push back or run fingers through and, consequently, needed and attracted no attention. A few men had beards. In a business setting, beards might be marked. In this academic gathering, they weren’t.

There could have been a cowboy shirt with string tie or a three-piece suit or a necklaced hippie in jeans. But there wasn’t. All eight men wore brown or blue slacks and nondescript shirts of light colors. No man wore sandals or boots; their shoes were dark, closed, comfortable and flat. In short, unmarked.

Although no man wore makeup, you couldn’t say the men didn’t wear makeup in the sense that you could say a woman didn’t wear makeup. For men, no makeup is unmarked.

I asked myself what style we women could have adopted that would have been unmarked, like the men’s. The answer was none. There is no unmarked woman.

There is no woman’s hair style that can be called standard, that says nothing about her. The range of women’s hair styles is staggering, but a woman whose hair has no particular style is perceived as not caring about how she looks, which can disqualify her for many positions, and will subtly diminish her as a person in the eyes of some.

Women must choose between attractive shoes and comfortable shoes. When our group made an unexpected trek, the woman who wore flat, laced shoes arrived first. Last to arrive was the woman in spike heels, shoes in hand and a handful of men around her.

If a woman’s clothing is tight or revealing (in other words, sexy), it sends a message — an intended one of wanting to be attractive, but also a possibly unintended one of availability. If her clothes are not sexy, that too sends a message, lent meaning by the knowledge that they could have been. There are thousands of cosmetic products from which women can choose and myriad ways of applying them. Yet no makeup at all is anything but unmarked. Some men see it as a hostile refusal to please them.

I think about Tannen’s essay all the time and how the idea of “marking” affects me.  I’m “marked”  every time I go out to speak, when I go on TV, when you look at my photos. After my appearance on the  Today show someone wrote to say my skirt was too short for someone with a serious message; after seeing me speak someone wrote asking whether my publicity still was airbrushed or, perhaps, outdated and felt that detracted from my credibility on the podium. I have long recognized that wearing my hair natural marks me (also provides a “trademark”) , which is a form of mark). While reporting Schoolgirls, a mother–who had been hostile towards me throughout–said to me, “My hair is as curly as yours but I could never get away with wearing it that way. It wouldn’t be seen as professional.” Snap. During that same period, I could tell when a girl felt comfortable with me because she would start tugging affectionately on my curls (the exception was African American girls who showed their comfort by “helpfully”suggesting ways I could straighten “that mess”).  I’ve wondered  how my message might be heard differently if I were overweight, if I didn’t wear makeup, if I let my hair go gray (I don’t know how gray my hair is, for the record–not too, I’m told, but still)  etc. In other words, if I dropped the ways that I comply with the culture’s expectations for women’s appearance, if I stopped “caring” or looked less “attractive” or more like Brother Rush’s idea of a feminist.  I think about how getting older marks me–I was so young when I started this work, which made me more appealing to girls, if not so much to parents–and how to “handle” that.

There is no neutral.

I have also wondered how  Jennifer Seibel Newsom  who made the must-see film Miss Representation deals with how she’s “marked.” Jennifer embodies the culture’s ideal of beauty which, I’ve found in conversation, simultaneously makes her more credible to some people and less credible to others when she critiques it. In both cases the question is: why is she doing this? And the answer is: because she’s a thinking, passionate, committed person and her film points out how the media’s sexualized, appearance-focused and often degrading depictions of women  undermine all women’s achievements, progress and selfhood (and how that can be changed).

This is not a right-left political issue or a man-woman issue. Women obviously judge other women. Liberals and conservatives alike do it. You do it. I do it. As Jezebel’s Erin Ryan writes:

…liberal grumbles about the apparent stupidity of the blonde brigade that occupies the Fox News anchor desk have rubbed me the wrong way, too. Yes, Megyn Kelly probably wouldn’t be an anchor on Team Ailes if she were not conventionally attractive, but she’s not bad at her job. And the other week when Fox personality Monica Crowley made a really dumb Sandra Fluke lesbian joke, a disturbing amount of the Twitter backlash against her was liberal dudes calling her a talking pair of tits, or telling her she was a bimbo. What does her physical appearance have to do with her stupid sense of humor? Nothing, folks. Nothing at all.

Ryan points out that, all of us pore over photos of  female celebrities caught bare-faced : “to satisfy our own curiosities (and insecurities), or so that we can mock them for being human, or to praise them for bucking tradition, especially if they’re women in power, and double extra especially if they’re polarizing women in power.” But, she adds, “even entering the conversation is unnecessary and dangerous.”

For men who believe that a woman is only as valuable as she is interesting to their dicks, exposing a woman for being imperfect or or somehow sloppy — think STARS WITHOUT MAKEUP! photospreads or accidental boob flashes — means that they’ve once again denigrated a woman in the way that most matters to her. It reiterates a damaging message, that women must see their looks as their most important category, since men do. And supporters of partisan ladies will feel compelled to defend women against these charges of ugliness, as if we’re defending their honor. See what’s happening here? Honor is connected to a female politician’s looks, and not her work or ideology or politics.

It’s an interesting analysis, though it won’t stop me from protesting photoshop abuse or cheering for women (especially older women) who are brave enough to put their real faces forward (can you believe that takes courage? How the hell has this happened????).

Tannen points out that “marking” goes well beyond appearance. When  You Just Don’t Understand, her classic book on the difference in conversational styles between men and women was published:

I sent the manuscript to five male colleagues, asking them to alert me to any interpretation, phrasing or wording that might seem unfairly negative toward men. Even so, when the book came out, I encountered responses like that of the television talk show host who, after interviewing me, turned to the audience and asked if they thought I was male-bashing.

Leaping upon a poor fellow who affably nodded in agreement, she made him stand and asked, “Did what she said accurately describe you?” “Oh, yes,” he answered. “That’s me exactly.” ‘And what she said about women — does that sound like your wife?” “Oh yes,” he responded. “That’s her exactly.” “Then why do you think she’s male-bashing?” He answered, with disarming honesty, “Because she’s a woman and she’s saying things about men.”

To say anything about women and men without marking oneself as either feminist or anti-feminist, male-basher or apologist for men seems as impossible for a woman as trying to get dressed in the morning without inviting interpretations of her character. Sitting at the conference table musing on these matters, I felt sad to think that we women didn’t have the freedom to be unmarked that the men sitting next to us had. Some days you just want to get dressed and go about your business. But if you’re a woman, you can’t, because there is no unmarked woman.

For her part, Hillary Clinton did what she should have: she laughed off the tempest in a teapot (not even a teapot–maybe a demitasse?), telling CNN:

I feel so relieved to be at the stage I’m at in my life right now. Because you know if I want to wear my glasses I’m wearing my glasses. If I want to wear my hair back I’m pulling my hair back. You know at some point it’s just not something that deserves a lot of time and attention. And if others want to worry about it, I let them do the worrying for a change.

Because she’s got other things to think about. Like, I don’t know, terrorismhuman rights abusesnuclear war. But let’s focus on whether she’s hit the Bobbi Brown counter lately, shall we?