Andy McDandy wrote:
So in effect for a woman, the physical appearance is taken as the starting point, while for a man it's only mentioned if genuinely arresting?
Pretty much. A woman's appearance is always considered meaningful. It's never just a surface or a series of mix-and-match decisions taken on a blurry morning; it has to point to something deeper, an essential truth about her character or lifestyle. The hoary old game still played out in the sidebar of shame is a bras-de-fer
between the 'information' the woman wants to transmit about herself through her appearance (stylish, sexually active, 'enviable', etc) and that which is revealed by the unsolicited paparazzi photos taken in the supermarket, or the 'unguarded moments' when a celebrity falls out of a nightclub and exposes her modesty. It's not hard to dig out the timeless stereotypes in this: woman as mysterious enchantress, earth mother, the whore masquerading as madonna.
For a man near the top of the kyriarchy, the opposite is true. He is not frivolous or vain; all that can be read from his appearance is a non-rejection of straight white male normalness. He may wear a blue tie one day, a red one the next (probably chosen by his wife, perhaps she even ties it for him); otherwise he seems to dress in the same way for most of his adult life — and, if a public schoolboy, longer. This gives him an air of constancy. Public figures who deviate from this template — William Hague with his baseball cap, John Major's cabinet when they went on their casual-dress retreat — are ridiculed. Indeed, any suggestion of individuality beyond perhaps Ken Clarke's shoes is sneered at: witness the reaction David Cameron is getting when he talks about his taste in music. The stereotype behind this is the self-effacing professional, monastically dedicated to his work (see all detective series). Such devotion would be compromised if he were to show personal interest or emotional investment, or be overtly distracted by the shiny objects that are, nonetheless, the deserved rewards for his effort.
This masculine ideal is associated with the proper, uncorrupt exercise of power. It intrinsically excludes women, because as I've argued women cannot dress 'neutrally'. A women's look is always about herself
, and that goes against the professional ethic of impartial, impersonal invisibility*. When a group of women are gathered together, they do not look identical, they do not form a 'club' — they are individuals who happen to be proximate. They will end up competing and fighting with each other. They cannot be trusted to "take one for the team". If they did, it would be for the wrong kind of team — a team for women's this or women's that.
If so, it's more evidence of the institutional everythingism of the media (see posts Ad nauseum), finding her of interest because she is a woman rather than because of what she has or hasn't done.
I'd put it differently. I'd say that, in media narratives, there is womanness in everything a woman does. The content and the significance of that womanness may change with events. As recent coverage has shown, the idea of manness does not exist in the media, not even in stories about sex gangs or footballer rapists.
However, seeing as she was part of that world and helped in no small part create and maintain it, my sympathy is limited.
I have no sympathy for her at all. That doesn't mean she's wrong about the coverage being gendered, and it certainly doesn't mean that gendered or sexist coverage is acceptable. As someone (you?) pointed out on another thread, media discourse about Karen Matthews was horribly sexist, but that tells us everything about the media and nothing about Karen Matthews. I maintain that Louise Mensch is being covered, positively and negatively, in extremely gendered terms; I don't think it matters that she plays it up because, as I've argued, she doesn't have a choice — either she genders herself on her own terms, or the media will do it for her on theirs.
* Mrs Thatcher is an interesting case. The matronly-headmistressy victorian matriarch might be an exception, as an acceptably retrogressive yet righteously vocational exerciser of power. It's certainly no accident that Thatcher's trademark was not her hair or her clothes, but her handbag — an accessory of femininity that is non-sexual and held at arm's length.