Erotica, High Heels, and Handbags: Is This How The Beltway Press Should Cover Powerful Women?

Blog ››› ››› ERIC BOEHLERT

Avril Haines' extraordinary professional rise hit a new plateau this week when President Obama appointed the 43-year-old White House national security attorney to become the CIA's deputy director, replacing longtime career officer Michael Morell.

Haines' CIA promotion came just two months after Obama had nominated her to take over as legal counsel for the State Department. Haines will become the highest-ranking woman ever at the CIA, just as she would have become the first female legal counsel a the State Department, if Obama hadn't changed his mind about her promotion. Haines' appointment comes in the wake of last week's news that Susan Rice had been appointed Obama's new national security advisor, and that Samantha Power would replace Rice as the United States' Ambassador to the United Nations.

Yet as women continue to rise in the Obama administration and on Capitol Hill, some in the press still apply a shockingly different standard when covering accomplished women in Washington, D.C.

The day after the White House made the Haines appointment, the Daily Beast published a strange article revealing how the CIA's new number two, when she was 25-years-old, used to host erotic readings at the Baltimore book store and restaurant she co-owned. (Salon accused the Daily Beast of "slut-sham[ing]" Haines.)

Thursday marked the first time the site had ever written about the national security star of the Obama administration, according to Daily Beast's archives. And in its first time writing about Haines, the Daily Beast focused on detailing her erotica readings from 20 years ago. And in an effort to juice up the article, the Daily Beast cherry picked explicit passages of erotica and suggested Haines may have read two them decades ago - "aloud" and in public! (i.e. "He mounted her, parting her legs, giving the white inner flesh of her thighs a soft deep pinch.")

Also included in the profile was a mention that Haines' father is very wealthy, and that when she was younger living in Baltimore, and when not reading erotica, Haines often rehabbed her apartment in "jeans or a pair of shorts."

This is all very weird.

I don't even have to point that if a male attorney had quickly ascended to become the CIA's second-in-command at the age of 43, no news outlets would be reporting on the sex-filled books he read during his post-college years (what's wrong, or newsworthy about erotica?), or the type of shorts he wore when he was in his twenties. Or for that mater, would they likely mention his rich daddy.

The Daily Beast misfire came just weeks after The Washington Post published an item detailing the "fabulous shoes" White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler wears to work. (One pair "has a jeweled paisley pattern.")

And earlier this month, the New York Times explored the pressing issues of what kind of handbags are most popular on Capitol Hill:

The Congress of yore might conjure images of spittoons and old male politicians with briefcases, but the 113th has ushered in a historic number of women -- 20 in the Senate, and 81 in the House -- and with them a historic number of handbags.

Handbags? High heels? Erotica? These are the windows through which we should view powerful female players in Washington, D.C.? Shouldn't we be past these shallow forms of gender identification? 

As Slate's Rachel Larris wrote in the wake of the Times and Post pieces about purses and shoes, rather than providing color for readers, "Inclusion of such details has an unintended and detrimental effect for subjects of their stories," which was  confirmed in a recent study by Name It. Change It. That treatment also promotes the notion that women, and especially influential working women, can be best understood by examining what they wear and the accessories they choose. (Or the R-rated books they might read.) And that those appearance choices represent conscious decisions to by the women to define who they are, both personally and professionally.

It's a media guideline that is almost never applied to male counterparts. The problem, of course, is not a new one.

Recall that the 2008 campaign season coverage of Hillary Clinton was a gender debacle. It featured "news" segments about Hillary hair style, a New York Times examination of the Clinton "cackle," and The Washington Post's bizarre 750-word rumination on the "startling" amount of cleavage Clinton "displayed" on the floor of the U.S. Senate.

And then there was the Times' Maureen Dowd and her relentless obsession with gender slights. The Times own public editor Clark Hoyt conceded that Dowd's columns were "loaded with language painting her as a 50-foot woman with a suffocating embrace, a conniving film noir dame and a victim dependent on her husband," Hoyt also noted the "relentless nature of her gender-laden assault on Clinton."

Recent examples though, suggest that rather than learning from the Clinton fiasco, parts of the press remains stuck in the past. And as the Obama administration promotes more and more women to the most senior positions in government, the coverage of their ascendancy too often remains fixated on trivial pursuits.

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