November 18, 2018

GROSKAUFMANIS | Actions Speak Louder Than Wardrobes

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Today’s cover of the New Yorker shows Barry Blitt’s “Welcome to Congress,” a moving visual tribute to the historic number of women who have been elected to serve in the Congress. The cartoon features figures that appear to be Sharice Davids J.D. ’10, one of the first female Native Americans elected to Congress and the first openly LGBTQ representative elected from Kansas, Ilhan Omar, one of the first Muslim women elected to Congress, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who at 29 is the youngest woman to ever be elected to Congress. By now most of us have heard these names and registered these accomplishments, but the New Yorker cover really communicates how this election cycle was a monumental deviation from the status quo.

However, an obvious consequence of change is pushback, and not all media has been as welcoming to this group of trailblazers.

Last week, the internet erupted into controversy over, of all things, Ocasio-Cortez’s wardrobe — which is a really disappointing sentence to be typing in 2018. Right after the election, a panel of pundits speculated about the cost of her outfits while discussing financial barriers that the congresswoman-elect said she faced during her move to Washington.

The discussion indicated skepticism about her authenticity by questioning how Ocasio-Cortez had money for clothes, but not to move to a Washington apartment without a salary — as if the two were coupled in an either-or decision. Another journalist posted, and has since removed, a photo that had been sniped from behind of Ocasio-Cortez wearing a plain black coat, commenting that she didn’t “look like a girl who struggles,” implying that her outfit looked suspiciously expensive.

The sexism here is obvious but unfortunately isn’t unique. Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, for instance, have been a point of discussion in the news since before she even held elected office. But of course, we don’t hear about what Paul Ryan or Chuck Schumer are wearing. The fact that women and men are profiled differently by the media may sound obvious to a lot of us, but often times it is so pervasive and subtle that biases are difficult to detect. And in Ocasio-Cortez’s case, sexism intersects with class biases, and skepticism regarding her financial status has translated into a questioning of her honesty.

These examples may sound trivial, but they’re emblematic of harmful double-standards we impose on women who hold elected office. Ocasio-Cortez herself has called this out, tweeting “If I walked into Congress wearing a sack, they would laugh and take a picture of my backside. If I walk in with my best sale-rack clothes, they laugh and take a picture of my backside.”

One thing that has stuck with me about today’s New Yorker cover is the fact that, as the newly-elected women are depicted standing colorfully in the doorway, entering a room of their male colleagues, not a single man is looking at them. The men appear to be arguing, squinting, pointing and talking, but none show any acknowledgment of the women who are entering the room or their arena. Meanwhile, in the real world, all other eyes seem to be on them.

Right now, we’re in a critical period in which people in the U.S. are being introduced to these new representatives through the media, and because the media is an important intermediary for a majority of Americans, it’s important to call out these kinds of biases when we see them. Television is the primary way Americans get their news, so a group of TV pundits chuckling while they discuss Ocasio-Cortez’s financial situation and her wardrobe isn’t without consequence.

With more women elected to Congress than ever before, it’s crucial that we pause and think about how they are portrayed in the media, not just for them, but for a general public that deserves coverage that focuses less — or not at all — on how they dress.

Jacqueline Groskaufmanis is a senior in the College of Arts and Sciences. The Dissent runs every other Monday this semester. She can be reached at jgroskaufmanis@cornellsun.com