Don’t You Look Pretty Today

"Mrs Hillier, who wore a dark trouser suit over a beige jumper edged in blue, has two children aged five and three, and greatly dislikes the “macho, aggressive” style of traditional Westminster politics."
Andrew Grimson, the Daily Telegraph, 27 April 2005

Forgive the pun, but clothes are not immaterial. William James went so far as to claim that “In its widest possible sense … a man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his,” including “his clothes”. What we wear can be significant.

Andrew Grimson, in his daily election sketches for the Daily Telegraph, has mentioned clothes on several occasions. He remarked that Boris and Stanley Johnsons’ “scruffy appearance did not win universal approval”. He also described the sports-casual look of Conservative candidate Ed Vaizey because it was “hardly the dress of a traditional Conservative”. In both cases, the reference to attire was entirely justified and non-gratuitous.

What, however, is the significance of Labour candidate Meg Hillier’s “dark trouser suit over a beige jumper edged in blue”? Grimson not only doesn’t say, he doesn’t even give us any clues. Given the context in which the description occurs, are we to think it reveals something about her view that the style of politics in Westminster is macho? If so, it is hard to see what that might be.

It is not as though it is Grimson’s style to mention appearance for the sake of adding some descriptive colour. The only thing he says about Robert Kilroy-Silk, a politician well known for his impressive tan and dapper style, is that “to many members of the working class he is a glamorous figure.” And apart from the examples already given, the only other significant reference to appearance Grimson makes over three weeks of sketches has been to point out that the Conservative candidate Anne Milton “has been compared in looks with actor Julian Clary”. Ouch.

Given the limited evidence, to deduce anything specifically about Andrew Grimson on the basis of his election sketches would not be fair. But in general, I think we know full well why some people’s appearance receives more attention than others: absence of the Y chromosome. Time and again reporters will mention what a woman is wearing, even though they would not do the same if the person in question were a man being discussed in the same capacity.

Many people, including many women, neither notice this nor care much about it if is pointed out. Perhaps, they’ll say, it’s just that men tend to look very similar – all with suits and ties – whereas women provide more aesthetic variety, for which they are noticed. There may be something in that. But there is surely also something in the complaint that to describe what a woman is wearing when it is irrelevant to the story in hand has the subtle effect of slightly undermining the seriousness of the woman in question. By placing some importance on how she looks, you take away some of the importance of what she says.

It is easy to dismiss such concerns as attempts to make mountains out of molehills. But perhaps a better analogy is with heaps and grains of sand. Each small instance, like a single grain of sand, is indeed insignificant by itself. But the cumulative effect of thousands of such reinforcements of stereotypes adds up, just as enough grains of sand will fill a desert. And that there are millions of such grains is indisputable. Just consider the William James quote I opened with. He talked not of a person’s self but a “man’s self”. By making the male the paradigm of the human, the female is inevitably relegated to second place.

There are other ways in which modes of speech reinforce what can variably be called the prevailing orthodoxy, the dominant ideology or entrenched prejudices. A respectful, serious lexicon and tone are used when talking about dominant groups, while others are implicitly dismissed with irreverence and levity. If the social order these ways of speaking reflect is questionable, that in itself is a reason to avoid contributing to their propagation.

That doesn’t necessarily mean these forms of speech contribute to bad arguments. Often, however, they not only reinforce prevailing orthodoxies, but draws some support from them. Whether intentional or not, and whether typical of him or not, when Grimson drew our attention to Hillier’s clothes, he was not only making an albeit miniscule contribution to the demeaning of women, he was also invoking that sense of female frivolity. It’s subtle, for sure, and may not have had any effect on our overall perception of Hillier. But even if it didn’t, the worry is not that there was a decisive contribution to the argument, but that such ways of talking infect our whole discourse, so that we don’t even notice how one half of society is being constantly undermined.

You may not be persuaded. But consider this: you don’t need to know what I’m wearing to judge the merits of my argument. And nor should you need to know how Meg Hillier, or any other woman, is dressed to judge the merits of theirs.

Comments are closed.