Sex and gender at work, in bed, and on the street

The 10 nastiest things Robin Givhan has ever written

December 15, 2010 - 02:30 PM
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Givhan, with Sally Quinn (Photo: Associated Press)

In 2006, Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan snagged a Pulitzer Prize in criticism for her tortured deconstructions of the sartorial choices of the Washington elite. In conferring the award, the prize committee praised Givhan for her "witty, closely observed essays that transform fashion criticism into cultural criticism."

That approach—conjuring sweeping cultural conclusions from a politician's flowery pantsuit selection—netted Givhan journalism's top prize. It also inspired her to relentlessly dissect her predominantly female subjects' bodies, then claim grand insight into each woman's cognitive functioning, fitness for public service, and sexual orientation.

Upon Givhan's sudden departure from the Post, remembering her nastiest, most personal body commentaries:

10. On Michelle Obama, upon her decision to wear shorts to hike the Grand Canyon: "Obama was wearing play short—the kind of casual cotton fare that a woman might choose for a family outing when her itinerary includes hiking around the rim of the Grand Canyon on a hot summer day, which is precisely what the first lady was going to do. . . But that doesn't make the ensemble okay.  . . . Avoiding the appearance of queenly behavior is politically wise. But it does American culture no favors if a first lady tries so hard to be average that she winds up looking common." BONUS RUMINATION ON PRESIDENTIAL SHORTS: "They were not the kind of knee-grazing Bermudas or pedal pushers that the fashion industry has long advocated as work-appropriate sportswear during the summer months. They were not tailored, nor were they masquerading as a skirt."

9. On Elizabeth Edwards, upon her decision not to raise her husband's love child: "this woman with the soft Southern accent and the maternal air has essentially said that the baby is not her concern. That is not the expected response from a woman whose figure is devoid of sharp lines and who always seems to be dressed for a parent-teacher conference. Would people respond with the same shock if Edwards had the body of a marathoner and the wardrobe of Carrie Bradshaw? Probably not. Because a woman who looks like that is presumed to be self-involved until proven otherwise." BONUS BIZARRE INTERNALIZATION: Robin Givhan has the body of a marathoner and the wardrobe of Carrie Bradshaw.

8. On Elena Kagan, upon her nomination to the Supreme Court (and not the premiere of Courtney Cox's 'Cougar Town'): "But Kagan is only 50 years old, which might be the equivalent of 100 in Hollywood years, but within the Washington establishment she would be classified as a young'un. Her style, however, makes her seem so much older. There's little that could be described as fun, impish or creative in her dress. It's a wholly middle-age approach to a wardrobe—if one stubbornly and inaccurately defines that transitional period in life as the beginning-of-the-end of sex appeal, effervescence and sprightliness. Kagan's version of middle-age seems stuck in a time warp, back when 50-something did not mean Kim Cattrall or Sharon Stone, 'Cougar Town' or 'Sex and the City'." BONUS LESBIAN SPECULATION: "So the chatter on the Internet and in the coffee shops, turns to the lesbian archetypes: the Birkenstock-wearing, crunchy granola womyn; the short-haired, androgynous type; and the glamorous, lipstick-wearing Portia de Rossi girl. What does Kagan's short hair mean? Or the fact that she wears makeup?"

7. On Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, upon her decision to wear high-heeled boots: "Rice's coat and boots speak of sex and power -- such a volatile combination, and one that in political circles rarely leads to anything but scandal. When looking at the image of Rice in Wiesbaden, the mind searches for ways to put it all into context. It turns to fiction, to caricature. To shadowy daydreams. Dominatrix! It is as though sex and power can only co-exist in a fantasy. When a woman combines them in the real world, stubborn stereotypes have her power devolving into a form that is purely sexual." BONUS KEANU REEVES COMPARISON: "The coat, with its seven gold buttons running down the front and its band collar, called to mind a Marine's dress uniform or the 'save humanity' ensemble worn by Keanu Reeves in 'The Matrix.'"

6. On Britney Spears, upon her pregnancy: "It is also best not to wear a denim miniskirt so short that when seated it practically disappears beneath the protuberance of one's pregnant belly, producing an image that is more gynecological than fashionable. BONUS RUNAROUND TECHNIQUE OF CALLING BRITNEY SPEARS A HO: Instead of making a statement about the sexiness of impending motherhood, it suggests that the mother-to-be appears to be unfamiliar with the usefulness of a full-length mirror and the term 'ho-gear.'"

5. On Nancy Pelosi, upon her ascension to speaker of the house: "Pelosi appears consciously, comfortably and authoritatively female. It is as though she looked in the mirror and included on the long list of questions that a woman might ask herself: Do I look appropriate? Do I look professional? Do I look strong? Do I look smart? Do I feel comfortable? She sneaked in the query that is the ultimate taboo: Do I look pretty?" BONUS CONCLUSION DERIVED FROM PURE SPECULATION AS TO THE INNER THOUGHTS OF THE SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: "That's not conceited or shallow or irrelevant. It's human."

4. On Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers, upon the withdrawal of her nomination to the high court: "In the end, poor Harriet Miers was reduced to a caricature: an intellectual lightweight who was lax in filling out her Judiciary Committee questionnaire and had a tendency to overdo the eyeliner. BONUS JUSTIFICATION FOR PRODUCING COPY ON A SUPREME COURT NOMINEE'S EYELINER: "Miers wore makeup applied in the manner of a young woman who views eyeliner as something quite grown-up, tough and just a little bit sexy. This isn't a question of height, weight or age or any fixed trait. In turning to cosmetics, Miers made a conscious decision to alter her appearance. She made a choice to exaggerate her eyes and demand that they be noticed."

3. On Dick Cheney, upon his visit to Auschwitz: "At yesterday's gathering of world leaders in southern Poland to mark the 60th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, the United States was represented by Vice President Cheney. The ceremony at the Nazi death camp was outdoors, so those in attendance, such as French President Jacques Chirac and Russian President Vladimir Putin, were wearing dark, formal overcoats and dress shoes or boots . . . The vice president, however, was dressed in the kind of attire one typically wears to operate a snow blower." BONUS DEATH CAMP-SUMMER CAMP JOKE: "Cheney stood out in a sea of black-coated world leaders because he was wearing an olive drab parka with a fur-trimmed hood. It is embroidered with his name. It reminded one of the way in which children's clothes are inscribed with their names before they are sent away to camp."

2. On then-United States Senator Hillary Clinton, upon the revelation of a hint of cleavage on the Senate floor: "It's tempting to say that the cleavage stirs the same kind of discomfort that might be churned up after spotting Rudy Giuliani with his shirt unbuttoned just a smidge too far. No one wants to see that. But really, it was more like catching a man with his fly unzipped. Just look away! . . . To display cleavage in a setting that does not involve cocktails and hors d'oeuvres is a provocation. It requires that a woman be utterly at ease in her skin, coolly confident about her appearance, unflinching about her sense of style. Any hint of ambivalence makes everyone uncomfortable." BONUS DEEPLY UNFLATTERING COMMENTARY ON HILLARY CLINTON'S CLEAVAGE: "unnerving."

1. On Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, upon her ascension to the national stage during the 2000 presidential election: "One of the reasons Harris is so easy to mock is because she, to be honest, seems to have applied her makeup with a trowel. At this moment that so desperately needs diplomacy, understatement and calm, one wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship. . . . Besides, she looks bad—not by the hand of God but by her own. She took fashion—which speaks in riddles, hyperbole and half-truths—at its word, imbibing all of those references to the '70s and '80s, taking styling cues from Versace ads in which models are made up as if by a mortician's assistant, believing the magazines when they said that blue eye shadow was back. She failed to think for herself. Why should anyone trust her?" BONUS OBLIGATORY NONSENSICAL DEFLECTION OF SEXISM: "True, a lot of the male players in this drama don't look so terrific, either. The difference, however, is that their jowls, potbellies and unruly hair are not self-applied every morning. If they look rumpled and haggard, one could excuse it with the belief that they were up all night debating their next move in the game of political chess. Harris looks harsh thanks to face time at the looking glass."

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