What was mainstream sexual politics like?

WEDNESDAY, OCTOBER 6, 2021

Robin Givhan's column: This morning, the increasingly tabloidized web site of the Washington Post caught up with a personage it had largely been disappearing.

We refer to the Robin Givhan, the Post's "senior critic at large." 

Givhan's columns are called "The Critique." In print editions, the columns run in a fairly prominent place—across the top of page A2, once or twice a week.

Until today, the web edition of the Post had seemed unaware of Givhan's existence. It was virtually impossible to find her columns at the paper's web site. Quite literally, if you entered her name in the Post's search engine, it wouldn't produce a link to her columns until several days had passed!

This was just one part of the puzzling disconnect between the two versions of the Post—the more traditional newspaper which arrives at people's homes in the morning, versus the largely dumbnified version which now appears in-line.

(Until some time in August, the Post's web site produced a listing of the "stories" in that day's print edition. That service no longer exists.)

Full disclosure! We've been biased against Givhan dating all the way back to November 2000. 

At that time, and for many years, Givhan was a fashion writer for the Post, and she may well have been a very good one. The leading authority on her career summarizes it as shown, through the year 2014:

Robin Givhan (born September 11, 1964) is an American fashion editor and Pulitzer Prize winning writer.

Givhan was a fashion editor for The Washington Post. She joined the Post in 1995, and left in 2010 to become the fashion critic and fashion correspondent for The Daily Beast and Newsweek. She returned to the "Post" in 2014.

Givhan won the Pulitzer Prize for Criticism in 2006, the first time the award was given to a fashion writer. The Pulitzer Committee cited Givhan's "witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism."

Givhan returned to the Post in 2014. She's still at the Post today, writing the columns of which the web site seemed to be unaware until this very morning.

Despite her acclaim as a fashion writer, we've been biased against Givhan ever since November 2000. We've been biased against her because of the astounding column she wrote about Katherine Harris.

Harris had the misfortune of being Florida's secretary of state during the 2000 Florida recount. This thrust her onto the public stage in a very dramatic way.

Givhan's astonishing column about Harris was a bit of a mainstream / liberal "own goal." At a time when the liberal world was praying that the Gore campaign could emerge victorious from a very confusing recount, Givhan managed to create a great deal of sympathy for the Republican state official with all those ties to Governor Jeb Bush.

How did Givhan manage to do this? She did it through a mocking column which carried this mocking headline:

The Eyelashes Have It

For those who want to understand what mainstream sexual politics were like as of the year 2000, that column serves as a bit of a primer. 

It helps explain the ugly way Candidate Gore was attacked, starting in November 1999, for hiring Naomi Wolf as a campaign adviser. (At the time, Wolf was a thoroughly mainstream figure and an acclaimed author.)

It helps explain the way certain figures in the mainstream press ridiculed Monica Lewinsky. It helps explain the ludicrous conduct of many major journalists during the Clinton impeachment chase and during the subsequent Gore campaign.

In fairness to Givhan, everyone makes mistakes.  In this case, hers was an absolute dilly. Her condescension and her contempt could not have been more obvious or less appropriate. 

No, her column didn't change the way the Florida recount turned out. But it was one of various ridiculous plays which made the road that much harder.

Givhan ridiculed Harris' appearance during her crazy column. Headline included, the column started as shown below, with Givhan restricting herself to a strange act of clairvoyance:

GIVHAN (11/18/00): The Eyelashes Have It

The first time the country got a good look at Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, it was in the wee hours of the morning on Nov. 8. Television viewers were bleary-eyed, and the realization that the election was spiraling into a Kabuki drama of chads, butterflies and boils hadn't sunk in. Harris sat hunched in a Shakespeare T-shirt. She looked tired and tousled and like a forty-something woman who hadn't gotten enough sleep. And viewers accepted that without comment because they recognized and could understand the image: honest human imperfection.

How could Givhan possibly know what "viewers" had "accepted without comment" in the wee hours of that fateful night and morning? 

Obviously, Givhan couldn't know any such thing. But at that point, the absurdity turned to ugly condescension. The mockery was overt, obvious. As the fashion writer continued, she offered Post readers this:

GIVHAN (continuing directly): By the time perplexed Americans got another gander of her, she was suited up for business. Her cascade of auburn hair did a lazy Veronica Lake dip over one eye. Her lips were overdrawn with berry-red lipstick—the creamy sort that smears all over a coffee cup and leaves smudges on shirt collars. Her skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of pre-war walls in need of a skim coat. And her eyes, rimmed in liner and frosted with blue shadow, bore the telltale homogenous spikes of false eyelashes. Caterpillars seemed to rise and fall with every bat of her eyelid, with every downward glance to double-check--before reading--her most recent "determination."

Hers were not the delicate individual lashes that can be used to fill out sparse hairs and give the eyes a lush canopy. Instead, they were the lashes of Tammy Faye Bakker Messner or Peggy Moffitt, the '60s model famed for her mod style and huge lashes. They were cartoon lashes. Lashes destined for a "Saturday Night Live" skit.

According to the Pulitzer winner, Harris' skin had been plastered and powdered to the texture of pre-war walls in need of a skim coat. 

Caterpillars seemed to rise and fall with every bat of her eyelid. Her eyelashes were cartoon lashes, destined for SNL.

The fashion writer with the Princeton degree was just getting started. "By the time folks finished deriding her makeup," she said as she continued, "they couldn't stop the momentum. They went on to the clothes. Hate the suit. Hate the buttons. Hate you."

Just like that, this was a primer in hate. That said, which "folks" was Givhan talking about? At no point did she say. But as she continued, it became perfectly clear that she was, at the very least, talking about herself.

GIVHAN: For her close-up, Harris did what any reasonable person would. Wisely recognizing that television lights wash out features, she looked in the mirror and began to apply makeup. And apply makeup. And apply makeup. Until she looked as if she were wearing a mask. Harris virtually created a character that she could present to the world. Would anyone even recognize her on the street? Has that been her plan all along?

[...]

One of the reasons Harris is so easy to mock is because she, to be honest, seems to have applied her makeup with a trowel. At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement and calm, one wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship.

Besides, she looks badnot by the hand of God but by her own. She took fashion--which speaks in riddles, hyperbole and half-truths—at its word, imbibing all of those references to the '70s and '80s, taking styling cues from Versace ads in which models are made up as if by a mortician's assistant, believing the magazines when they said that blue eye shadow was back. She failed to think for herself. Why should anyone trust her?

You can read the whole column here; it was very unhelpful. Some other ridiculous columns about political figures followed, but we've been biased against Givhan from that day to this. We've also been biased against the type of journalistic elite which was willing to put such ridiculous work into print.

The misogynistic sliming of Wolf (and Gore) in 1999 had come from this same general playbook. Candidate Gore, "today's man-woman" (Chris Matthews), had "hired a woman to teach him how to be a man" (everyone, in unison). So the children told us as they conducted their war.

In that case, the mainstream press corps, taking its lead from Maureen Dowd, was trying to take down Candidate Gore. In the end, they succeeded, though only barely.  (In their view, he hadn't denounced President Clinton strongly enough.) 

In the strange column by Givhan, she was expressing her undisguised contempt for "this Republican woman" who seemed to have applied her makeup with a trowel. This was the ugly frame of reference which generally ruled this sick elite at that particular point in time. People are dead all over the world because the New York Times and the Washington Post, and NBC News and its cable arms, crawled with people with values like these.

We've been biased ever since! Today, we went back and reread Givhan's column for the first time in many years. As before, we found it shocking, astounding, instructive.

Today, many of these same elite players pretend they deeply care. On the brighter side, the Washington Post's increasingly tabloidy web site has finally started linking to The Critique.

In fairness, perhaps we all make a gruesome mistake at some point in time. If so, this was Givhan's gruesome mistake—but it was part of a torrent of press coverage, at that time and in the years which followed, which spilled with misogynist values.

The liberal world didn't say a word as Candidate Gore was routinely slimed, then as the misogynist mockery moved on to Hillary Clinton. The feminist world barely said a word until 2008!

With respect to the ugly sliming of Wolf, William Kristof spoke up in protest; so did William Safire. We know of no on else who did. This is who and what we "liberals" actually were in that deeply destructive time.

People are dead all over the world because our deeply self-impressed tribe carried those noxious values. First among the bucket of values was, and is, this dominant value:

Total devotion to total silence where misconduct by the guild is concerned.

They'll never discuss the things they did. Dearest darlings, use your heads! It simply isn't done!


22 comments:

  1. What's this all about, dear Bob? Sounds like a bunch of meaningless drivel, we're sorry to say.

    Also, if you don't see that major presidential candidate hiring Naomi Wolf as a campaign consultant is comical -- that's fine. But surely such a deeeeep-thinking person as you must understand that some (let's call them "Others") might?

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  2. The Gore campaign tried to hide Wolf’s participation, as if they were ashamed of her. See Tapper’s article in Salon 1999 about Wolf. Her role was to increase his appeal to female voters. I don’t think she needed defending, but Gore brought that negative coverage on himself.

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  3. Givhan was a fashion writer. She wrote about hair, makeup, and clothes. In Somerby’s world that is a crime.

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    Replies
    1. Corby, you may use a nym, but you think like an Anonymouse.

      Yes, Givens writes about hair, make-up, and clothes, but these things serve as contrivances for her political sorties into personal character.

      Delete
    2. Prove it. Somerby asserts that her portrayal of Harris was politically motivated. He provides no evidence and puts his thumb on the scale by selectively quoting her. Do you have any evidence at all that Givahn was trying to slime Harris for political reasons?

      Given that Gore lost the recount, how did he benefit from Givahn's actions? My recollection of that time period is that everyone understand that Harris was helping Jeb Bush (who was in turn helping his brother win the election). Nothing Givahn did or didn't say about her makeup would make Harris any less of a Republican partisan.

      Somerby also never mentions that big hair and overdone makeup is a trademark of the South, consistent with traditional gender roles that require women to be highly differentiated from men, to the point of looking like female impersonators (guys in drag).

      Delete
    3. Anonymouse 9:09pm, nothing Anonymices could have said here about Kathleen Harris could have made a difference, but you’d still say it.

      You’d still voice your disapproval and impugn her character as you blanket-impugn the character of all your political contrarians.

      That’s what Givahn’s was doing. She was signaling her political bonafides in a style column and yes, collectively, in the media, this does have more of an influence on how the narrative/sausage is made than your goofiness here.

      Delete
    4. You'd have to know what was in the rest of Givahn's column to say that. Did you read it? Somerby didn't excerpt the parts that would have made her thesis clear. Unless you read it (and can cite the parts that prove your accusation about Givahn's intentions), you don't know what you are talking about.

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    5. Anonymices have expressed the idea that Somerby’s criticism of a female columnist “who writes about hair, make-up, and clothes” is de facto sexist.

      Stop with the bullshit about Givahn having indulged in literary allusions. Style section or not, you wouldn’t tolerate that for one minute if she had done it via Hillary and her pantsuits.

      Delete
    6. By the way, Anonymouse 9:09pm, I have it on the best of authority that women in the south do not have “big hair”.

      That would compete too much with their hoop dresses.

      Delete
  4. “The feminist world barely said a word until 2008!”

    How does Somerby know this? If he’s depending on the coverage of ‘feminist’ protest in the mainstream media, media that was apparently crawling with misogynists back in the 90’s, why would they report on such protest? Apparently if Somerby didn’t see it in the Times or Post, it didn’t happen. That seems like a shaky assumption. It might be that it took until 2008 for the press to report on feminist outrage.

    He also does this thing where he attributes the so-called rotten values he finds within the mainstream press to liberals in general. That is his reason for sliming ‘feminists’. He wasn’t doing that back in 2000 when his blog was still new.

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    1. This is a very common lie from Somerby.

      'X won't cover this topic'
      ' X ignored this topic in 2000'

      and so on.

      Not only is Somerby a liar, he's such a pathetic liar that he thinks people will believe him when he makes such claims.

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    2. Wolf herself was part of the "feminist world" in 2000. Why wouldn't her friends and associates respond if she were being mistreated?

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  5. It is not misogyny when a fashion writer complains that a public figure's makeup is unfashionable. First, women wear makeup as a fashion statement. Second, if they don't apply it according to current fashion, that is appropriate for a fashion critique to mention. Third, women who don't follow fashion or wish to be critiqued tend to either wear no makeup at all or to wear a small amount.

    One point of the excerpt quoted by Somerby is the contrast between the lack of makeup during the late-night session and the overdone makeup of her business appearance. It is clear that Givahn is drawing a parallel between Harris's role as an honest broker and her bare face compared to her role as a Republican foot soldier and her false face, hiding herself to the point of caricature. By omitting the parallel, Somerby makes her just sound mean. He obscures that she was pointing out that makeup is not just makeup but can reflect one's soul. Such a comparison also makes her writing more than just a "fashion critique" and illustrates why she was awarded a Pulitzer (not for this article, but for her ability to relate fashion to larger issues).

    I do think that misogyny is reflected in the way Somerby as chosen his excerpt to portray Givhan unfairly and make her appear to be mean-spirited for no apparent reason (a journalistic mean girl, which reflects on all women) instead of a perceptive commenter on a political situation in which Harris was helping to tip an election to the Republicans.

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    1. Oh, heck, yeah. Criticizing a style, fashion, and make-up columnist as Somerby has, is the picture of sexism.

      Characterizing a woman as spackling on makeup and wearing lashes as big as fuzzy-wuzzies in order to convey her falseness is literary technique.

      Unless it’s done to woman who’s a Democrat.

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    2. If Somerby were criticizing Givahn's actual point in her article, Harris's perfidy, you might have a point. He isn't actually doing that. He is calling articles about women's makeup stoopid because that is something that girls care about. And that is misogynistic.

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    3. Right. Somerby is only criticizing girl stuff in this passage.

      “ Givhan's astonishing column about Harris was a bit of a mainstream / liberal "own goal." At a time when the liberal world was praying that the Gore campaign could emerge victorious from a very confusing recount, Givhan managed to create a great deal of sympathy for the Republican state official with all those ties to Governor Jeb Bush.

      How did Givhan manage to do this? She did it through a mocking column which carried this mocking headline:

      The Eyelashes Have It
      For those who want to understand what mainstream sexual politics were like as of the year 2000, that column serves as a bit of a primer. ”

      Delete
    4. No, I said he was being a misogynist but not discussing sexual politics.

      Delete
    5. You’re always saying he’s an “its” of one kind or another.

      It’s a charge that’s never based on what the dude actually said.

      Delete
    6. Ist, rather.

      As in typist, she ain’t.

      Delete
  6. 'At a time when the liberal world was praying that the Gore campaign could emerge victorious from a very confusing recount, Givhan managed to create a great deal of sympathy for the Republican state official with all those ties to Governor Jeb Bush.'

    Seriously, Somerby claims that Gore lost the recount because of a column which somehow generated sympathy for Katherine Harris ? It's been obvious for a while that he's demented (what else would explain his desperate attempts to defend Trump, Roy Moore etc.), but now he seems pathetic even for the pathetic Trumptard that he is.

    'People are dead all over the world because our deeply self-impressed tribe carried those noxious values.'

    No wonder Somerby is a worshipper of Trump, Roy Moore et al. Like them, he loves to blame the press, and like Trump he is a liar and a hypocrite. And of course a Trumptard. It would be pathetic if his malice and his rants against others (especially women and AAs) make it clear that he deserves no sympathy.

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  7. This is not about "mainstream sexual politics." Sexual politics is about the fact that women are still underrepresented in Congress and there has still never been a female president. It is about the FACT that women are expected to wear makeup or be judged tired and old. It is about the FACT that Somerby never talks about any woman here except to say something bad about her (after first saying that she is probably a good, decent person).

    Somerby calls this politics because he wants to blame Givahn for Gore's mistakes. Then he tacks on the word "sexual" because she is talking about makeup, but he doesn't have a clue what the phrase "sexual politics" really means.

    Definition: "the principles determining the relationship of the sexes; relations between the sexes regarded in terms of power"

    An article about one woman talking about another woman's makeup has nothing to do with relationships between the sexes.

    Somerby's dislike for women and his portrayal of a Pulitzer prize-winning columnist's work as some kind of cat fight is misogyny but not sexual politics because he has chosen to have no relationship with women. But in our society, little has changed concerning power relationships between the sexes. As evidence of this, no one covered the Women's March and no one has talked about it, and no one has even discussed the reasons for the lack of coverage. Over 120,000 marchers in 450+ cities were involved, but it wasn't considered news because men hold the power in deciding what appears in the mainstream media. And Somerby is just fine with that -- judging by his own silence. He'd rather talk about a 20 year old loss by Al Gore.

    ReplyDelete
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