I have finally returned from a far-too-long hiatus centered around a trip to Southeast Asia and the subsequent readjustment to normal life, which itself was interrupted by unprecedented snowstorms that have shut down the entire Washington area! Now, however, I'm back, and while my first intention is to write a post on the fabulous textiles I encountered in SE Asia, I've decided to begin instead with a brief post on an article by The Washington Post's Robin Givhan. The article focuses on a story in this month's Harper's Bazaar about CBS anchor (and UVa alumna, I might add) Katie Couric.
I have covered Givhan's reporting in the past (see these posts), and generally admire her writing and obersvation, although I feel that her lack of a fashion studies background is a handicap to her full understanding of some of the topics she covered. The article on Couric centers not on the text of the Bazaar article but on its photography, by François Dischinger. Givhan writes, "(The photos) are an audacious celebration of a powerful woman as a boldly sexy one, too.
There's nothing reserved or hesitant in the sex appeal on display in the four-page story about Couric. The images are a full-throated, even exaggerated, rebuke of the notion that a woman must dress in a prescribed manner -- Suze Orman suits, full-coverage blouses, sensible heels -- to protect her IQ, her résumé and her place in a male-dominated work culture.
Is Couric dressed in a manner appropriate for a network anchor? These images demand that viewers define -- or redefine -- their terms."
There are two main images of Couric that accompany the article (at least in the online coverage): one depicts her in a beige, one-shouldered, above-knee-length Calvin Klein collection dress sitting at a glass desk in a modernist white office, and the other shows her in a short, dark skirt and blazer by Giorgio Armani, black hose, and a pair of Louboutin booties. She clutches the blazer closed at her chest and no shirt is visible underneath. In this second picture, Couric stands boldly atop two TV sets, one showing her (in?)famous interview with Sarah Palin and one showing her interviewing President Obama.
It's obvious that the photographer wanted to convey confidence, power, and yes, sex appeal. Couric is, after all, the first woman to anchor the evening news solo on one of the "big three" broadcast networks. While the article seems to emphasize her interviewing prowess, she is portayed as the anti-Barbara Walters: young, modern, in-charge -- and sexy.
In fact, it seems as though leaving sex appeal out of the picture would diminish her powerful image. In our culture, sex appeal has become an essential part of a woman's strength; asexuality, dowdiness, or even the downplay of one's assets for the sake of propriety smacks of a lack of confidence and creates the sense that a woman is not at home with her femininity. This is not a particularly new idea, especially since Sex and the City brought almost-nymphomaniacally sexually aware third-wave/post-third-wave feminism to the forefront of popular culture.
Givhan takes this sex-appeal-as-power in a different direction, as well, recognizing the difficulties of maintaining this kind of fashionable image (particularly when it comes to shoes):
How can she walk in those? Pure grit-- that's the explanation. And yes, please infer that if those four-inch stilettos don't draw tears from the woman wearing them, then neither will some ambitious colleague's backstabbing ways. Fashion, in this sense, is power.
There is, of course, the depth of the phallic symbolism of high heels to be plumbed here as well, but plenty of articles have already been written on that subject. And, to be honest, I don't think that would be particularly pertinent in an examination of Katie Couric.
As Bazaar fashion/special projects director Laura Borwn phrases it, "When coming up in the industry, you tend to dress the way people think you should dress. (Couric) has earned the right to be sexy if she wants." In these photos, Couric is indeed participating in the dissemination of this idea. Yet Brown adds that, after all, Couric was "doing photos for a fashion magazine, not Newsweek." I think that any analysis of Couric in these photos, and not just the photos themselves, must acknowledge that Couric's participation here was mostly as a fashion model. These are not news photos, nor are they strictly fashion journalism; they are that frequently seen combination of portrait and fashion shoot that combines chosen aspects of a person's personality and appearance with other desirable attributes to create a celebrity image.
Givhan states, "Certainly, some will see the pictures as further proof of why she is all wrong for the job. They will probably be the same people for whom Couric has accumulated a personal work wardrobe of blacks, grays and pinstripes -- a more sophisticated, yet still reserved, alternative to the news-anchor cliché of Crayola-colored blazers." These people, and perhaps Givhan as well, would do better to analyze Couric's personality, and personal image, through the clothing she wears on and off the job in public life. Those "blacks, grays and pinstripes" are far more telling about the real Couric, and her personal idea of what it means to be a powerful woman, than the outfits in which she was dressed by the Bazaar staff. How does sexuality play into this? Only a good look at Couric's wardrobe choices, which deserves more thought that I can give it here, would tell.
What do you think? How do you perceive Couric? How do you think our culture interprets sexuality and its relationship to feminine power?
Photo of Couric by Sylvain Gaboury for Life, 09 Mar 2000.