One photo is all it took. One shot on the cover of a fashion magazine and here we are, bang, slap in the midst of yet another public stoush over how a powerful woman should look. Is she ‘pretty’ enough? Smiling enough? Does she look authoritative?
If ever there was a need to remind us of the utterly precarious nature of women in leadership, this week’s media brouhaha over Kamala Harris and ‘that’ Vogue cover is it.
In case you missed it (perfectly understandable given a few higher order issues dominated the US this week) the cover of Vogue’s February edition – leaked to the media – brought a hailstorm of howls. Timed to hit news-stand as Harris is sworn in as the first female US Vice President, this was supposed be a collector’s item. Problem is, the would-be collectors hate it. Defiantly.
“Disrespectful” screamed social media. “Frankly shocking” bellowed the Washington Post, insisting the full length, informal shot of the VP-elect in her casual brown blazer, black trousers and sneakers, is an “insidious diminishing of Harris” that “reduced” her.
Reduced her to what exactly isn’t clear. A normal person? A woman in a hurry, with things on her mind? A working woman who loves a comfy shoe?
Not only does the photo show a relaxed, unposed Harris wearing her trademark converse sneakers and pearls, she has the sort of bemused, toothy smile we all wear in our social snaps. You can see the broad age brackets around her mouth and a hint of a jowl which, frankly, makes her looks like a healthy, happy 56 year old, ready to roll up her sleeves and get to work.
But at core of the outrage is power. And what it should look like.
According to the cover’s critics Harris doesn’t look authoritative enough. Not Vice Presidential enough. She is “Determinedly unfancy. Kind of messy” says the New York Times (because of course powerful women are such tidy, fancy freaks!). “She wears her street clothes”, bemoans the Washington Post, and “on her face is an expression not quite ready for the camera.” Really? The camera? Or the viewer bogged down in preconceived ideas of what brains and power should look like?
Disliking a photo is fine. Our responses will always be subjective, as imagery, colour, posture, lighting, and choice of clothes all trigger different brain neurons in each of us. But the problem here is the almost universal acceptance of how authority, leadership and power’ should ‘look’ on a woman.
We know from decades of research that when people think ‘leader’ they think ‘male’, as Dr Suze Wilson from Massey University puts it. Consequently, we look for signs of being “strong, tough … and commanding” as displayed in traditional male ways, and befitting a male paradigm. Therefore, a woman in leadership who doesn’t somehow ‘man-up’ is perceived to be lacking authority or power.
Ironically, the Vogue critics either don’t see the contradiction, or choose to ignore it, when they applaud slick photo shoots of a highly stylized Joe Biden sporting Aviator’s and loafers, aspiring to look every bit the relaxed, cool dude – just like the rest of us.
Proof of just how confused we are over how women should wear power and authority is the widespread – again almost universal – approval of the photo Vogue chose not to use. Rejected for print, but used in Vogue’s digital edition, is a tighter, more formal shot of Harris in a light blue designer suit. This is the one the critics love because Harris is “smiling” and “She looks pretty”.
Here Kamala strikes what the New York Times calls an “executive power pose”. Feet planted, staring down the barrel of the camera, arms folded high, with a half-smile that is warm, but not overly friendly. It’s a classic male leader pose that I too adopted in numerous television presenter photo shoots, back in the days when I thought the grittier and more manly I behaved, the more I’d be taken seriously.
Isn’t it time we all moved on?
We know Julia Gillard grappled badly with how best to present the ‘real Julia’ authentically and authoritatively, in a role with no female precedent. For most of her prime ministership she got it wrong. And so did we.
Amid the media storm after Germaine Greer ineloquently blasted the PM for having a “big arse” and choosing jackets that were too short, journalists – myself included – were critical when Gillard did a photo shoot for Women’s Weekly sitting in an armchair knitting, with her shaggy dog Ruben at her feet.
Back then, I took my protest directly to her media advisor to say it was ‘ill-advised’ and demeaned the Prime Minister’s authority. When had we seen a PM knitting before?
Well. Touche Virginia. That was the point. We hadn’t.
With no woman ever occupying the nation’s highest leadership position before, of course there were no knitters. Nor single, unmarried, childless women either. Sadly, we just didn’t grasp the power of difference, or the brilliant opportunity inherent in diversity. Disoriented by seeing a woman in a place in which we had only ever seen white, middle aged men, pulling the same power pose, we just didn’t know how to read or represent Julia.
Post Gillard and the public lesson in misogyny, hopefully now we can welcome a brighter, bolder interpretation of how a 21st century leader should present. What she wears. And how she smiles. Or not.
This article was also published in the Canberra Times 16 Jan 2021