As I write this, I’m standing at my kitchen counter, drinking a blueberry smoothy and wearing a pair of sneakers wet from a run in the rain. My hair is a mess, and I’m pretty sure my T-shirt has a couple of holes across the back. My shorts are gray. Why am I telling you all this? Maybe it’s to convey that I’m busy, squeezing spurts of writing between exercise and showering. Or perhaps I want to describe a typical morning in the life of a modern freelancer/blogger/grad student. Or maybe it’s because, as a culture, we tend to think of women in terms of their appearance.
Hillary Clinton’s pantsuits, Wendy Davis’s pink sneakers and, most recently, the wardrobe evolution of Google’s Melody Meckfessel have fueled an ongoing discussion about what’s fair game when describing female subjects in news stories. Like so many things in journalism, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Details like shoes, hair and clothing can bring a profile to life — or they can reveal subtle gender baises and turn a dynamic female subject into just another pretty thing.
Here are a few questions to ask before you drop in a line about her Jimmy Choos:
What’s your purpose for including the detail? Will the information help build a central theme in the story? Or are you including it only to lend color to the piece? If it’s the latter, consider finding a detail that doesn’t emphasize the female subject’s looks. Think of it as a reporting challenge.
Would you say something similar if the subject were male? Detailed physical descriptions of men are lesson common, but they do exist, like in this New Yorker piece about cyber security. These descriptors give life to a story otherwise heavy on tech, but they don’t distract from the important things those men have to say.
How prominent is the detail? As Poynter’s Andrew Beaujon points out, wardrobe was mentioned in stories about the filibusters of both Davis and Rand Paul, but the bit about Paul’s outfit was much lower down in the story. Physical descriptions may be more appropriate if they’re just part of a story that otherwise portrays a woman a complex human being worthy of public attention for something other than her looks.
What do you think? Are there other things to consider before describing a female newsmaker? What are some examples of appropriate physical descriptions of female subjects? What are some of the worst?