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What’s the right—and wrong—way for the media to cover what female politicians wear?

January 7, 2022, 1:56 PM UTC

Good morning, Broadsheet readers! 23andMe has its first drug in trials, Pakistan is set to confirm its first female Supreme Court justice, and it’s time to think about how female politicians’ fashion choices are covered. Have a relaxing weekend.

– Dress for (electoral) success? At first glance, this story from journalism pub Nieman Lab about how reporters write about female politicians’ fashion choices feels a little inside baseball. But as we look ahead to the U.S. midterm elections, I think it’s worthy reading for non-media folks too. That past few years have certainly illustrated the importance about being an informed news consumer, and that includes bringing a critical eye to the way powerful women are covered.

Let’s be clear—there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with writing about politician’s clothing or accessories. As the story notes, image and presentation are part of politics, and many pols skillfully deploy their wardrobes to send a message about who they are or what they stand for. The problem comes when discussion of clothing is a coded way of discussing a woman’s attractiveness, or when it comes without the context required to explain why it matters. There’s a stark difference between the coverage of Sarah Palin’s “sexy” outfits or Hillary Clinton’s “frumpy” ones, and the media focus on, say, Kamala Harris’s pearls, which the VP wears to symbolize her connection to her sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha.

There’s also the question of whether this type of sartorial analysis is being applied to men as well. While male politicians don’t completely escape fashion scrutiny (let us not forget the outcry over President Obama’s tan suit), I think it’s fair to say that women bear the brunt of it. Part of the reason for that dichotomy may be that we have far more varied and interesting clothing options than men—thank goodness!—but I suspect it’s also that our culture is far more accustomed to judging women based on their appearance, and that includes their wardrobe.

So, as political media shifts into election mode, I will certainly be keeping an eye on whose fashion is being covered and why. And if you see any particularly interesting examples—for good or ill—please send them my way!

Kristen Bellstrom

The Broadsheet, Fortune’s newsletter for and about the world’s most powerful women, is coauthored by Kristen Bellstrom, Emma Hinchliffe, and Claire Zillman. Today’s edition was curated by Emma Hinchliffe


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