NPR’s ombudsman Edward Schumacher-Matos writes about the challenges of describing women, and mentions the challenge NPR reporter Ailsa Chang faced in writing about New York State Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand ’88.
Chang tells Schumacher-Matos that when she was researching a story about Gillibrand, the “vast majority of people I spoke to brought up her looks and femininity without my prompting them on the subject. Even her college squash coach at Dartmouth.”
When she raised the issue with Gillibrand herself, Chang tells NPR, “Gillibrand said she did not take offense. She laughed and said she was at least thankful the comments veered towards how attractive she was, rather than the opposite.”
And when she wrote an NPR profile of Gillibrand, Chang mentioned “the senator’s hard work, political acumen, and focus on women’s issues.”
A web version of the story, however, included the words “petite, blonde, and perky,” and added a quote about Gillibrand from a fellow senator who called her the “hottest member” of the U.S. Senate.
Public reaction was strong, with many complaining that report was sexist, NPR notes.
Whether to include physical descriptions, or to mention an interviewee’s manner of dress, is a challenging question, whether one is writing about a man or a woman, Schumacher-Matos notes.
“Even so, in describing appearance, NPR and the news media surely should be respectful toward politicians and others of both sexes whose success, profession or manners don’t trade on their appearance,” he says. “Clearly, women are still more subject than men to being objectified as sex objects and to being patronized and abused, and so special sensitivity is required.
“But to outlaw all physical descriptions,” he adds, “is to ignore reality. It creates a spooky non-reality. It also drowns us in an earnestness that robs us of the art of nature, of words, and of life.”
Read the full story, published 7/09/13 by NPR.