Well, hot damn, Robin Givhan. We know you won a Pulitzer and all, but my jaw straight-up dropped when I read this headline, from Sunday's Washington Post Style section: "Elena Kagan goes on Supreme Court confirmation offensive in drab D.C. clothes." Wow! (And is there such a thing as non-drab D.C. clothes?) But then, there's the caption, showing Kagan looking perfectly professional, complete with a pair of pearls, next to Sen. Amy Klobuchar: "UNUSUAL: Most women, including Sen. Amy Klobuchar, cross their legs when sitting, but not Kagan." Double wow.
Givhan goes on to say that, in matters of style, Kagan is "unabashedly conservative," and the piece is an attempt to convey, as Tim Gunn puts it, the semiotics of styleâthe idea that every part of your wardrobe says something about you. (Sexy equals stupid; dowdy equals wise.) As Givhan puts it, "Tied up in the assessment of styleâKagan's or anyone else'sâis the awkward, fumbling attempt to suss out precisely who a person is." Which is undeniably true. But in this case, Givhan's attempt is exactly that: awkward, fumbling, and just plain offensive. She writes:
In the photographs of Kagan sitting and chatting in various Capitol Hill offices, she doesn't appear to ever cross her legs. Her posture stands out because for so many women, when they sit, they cross. She does not cross her legs at the ankles either, the way so many older women do. Instead, Kagan sits, in her sensible skirts, with her legs slightly apart, hands draped in her lap. The woman and her attire seem utterly at odds. She is intent on being comfortable. No matter what the clothes demand. No matter the camera angle.
If Wikipedia weren't telling me that Givhan is in her 40s, I'd chalk it up to grandmotherly tendencies. But beyond the idea that we'd never analyze the leg-crossing, the "drab" tendencies of Justice Alito (though Givhan has criticized John Roberts for being too well put together), or the fact that, as Daily Intel points out, Kagan actually does cross her legs, there are three great ironies to this piece:
(1) That it comes out the same day the Washington Post ombudsman reveals that accusations of gender bias at the Post are working against efforts "to retain or attract a critically important readership group: women."
The ombudsman cites four particular stories that have drawn widespread feminine ire: the recent cutting review of (NEWSWEEK editor Jon Meacham's) PBS public-affairs program, Need to Know, in which author Tom Shales declares that co-host Alison Stewart, looks, during a "fawning" interview with Bill Clinton, "as though she would have been much more comfortable in Clinton's lap"; a recent column that said Rielle Hunter had spoken "blondely"; a description of Sarah Palin that referenced her "pumps and black nylons"; and a 2007 story about Hillary Clinton, again by Givhan, that focused entirely on her cleavage. In that piece, Givhan writes that Clinton's slightly V-shaped neckline was "unnerving" and "startling," especially for a woman "who has been so publicly ambivalent about style, image and the burdens of both." She added, "[I]t was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away!"
(2) That the Post's own internal Stylebook says, "References to personal appearanceâblond, diminutive, blue-eyedâshould generally be omitted unless clearly relevant to the story." It cautions to "avoid condescension and stereotypes." Yeah, this is a fashion storyâwe know. But still kinda funny, right?
(3) And now for the final irony, care of Getty Images, and our lovely photo editor, Kathy Jones. Robin Givhan (above)! What on earth are you doing at Fashion Week without crossing your legs?!
Read more from this author on her women's issues blog, The Equality Myth.