Sexism, Women, and the Media: The Sophistic Alternative

This past weekend, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton visited the UN to discuss disaster relief in Pakistan and Haiti. What caught the attention of the media, however, was not her political work. It was her hair. More specifically, it was what was wrong with her hair. Here’s how Britain’s Daily Mail describes Clinton:

Mrs Clinton’s hair was scraped back and clipped on top of her head, but looked lank and in need of some love and understanding.

She wore a brilliant blue suit but that served only to make her features stand out more sharply as she met delegates – including the UK’s International Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell – at UN HQ last night.

This is only the latest instance of media sexism against women. As women continue to assume politically and culturally powerfully positions, blatant sexism like this appears more and more often. It’s what propelled the Women’s Media Center to launch their “Name It. Change It.” Project, aimed at identifying and fighting sexism in the media. Their website describes the impetus for the project:

Widespread sexism in the media is one of the top problems facing women. A highly toxic media environment persists for women candidates, often negatively affecting their campaigns. The ever-changing media landscape creates an unmonitored echo chamber, often allowing damaging comments to exist without accountability.

They’ve even produced a fake news cast, which re-creates real instances of media sexism:

Ridiculous as it may seem,  it demonstrates the very real ways rhetoric can manifest itself in the public realm. Western discourse is still very dominated by Platontic and Aristotelian masculinist assumptions: this view of rhetoric sees it as “the means of delivering truth already discovered through dialectic,” writes Susan Jarratt (64).  This is dangerous because “the congruence of logo- and phallocentrism places both sophistic rhetoric and women at the negative pole against philosophy and man” (Jarratt 65).  An Aristotelian or Platonic view posits a “claim for universality for narrative logics…[and] fails to allow for difference” (Jarratt 78). In the real world, this creates an exclusionary discourse, in which anyone not fitting the universal mold is subject to silencing, or, in the case of many public women today, straight-up ridicule.

Jarratt describes the implications of Platonic/Aristotelian rhetoric’s rendering of the feminine/sophistic other, which sounds eerily familiar to the ways in which women are often discussed in the media:

The character projected onto the feminine as “other” shares with Plato’s sophists qualities of irrationality (or non-rationality), magical or hypnotic power, subjectivity, emotional sensitivity; all these are devalued in favor of their ‘masculine’ or philosophic opposites—rationality, objectivity, detachment, and so on.” (65)

She even draws connections to style, dress, and appearance, pundits’ favorite talking points when it comes to powerful women: “This parallel can be traced even more closely into the realm of ‘style,’ both as it refers specifically to language and in its more general reference to gesture, appearance, and dress” (65).

So, how can alternate understandings of rhetoric serve as a solution to this wide-spread media sexism? Jarratt suggests that the sophists provide an alternative to hegemonic, exclusionary rhetoric, as does John Poulakos.  He argues that Sophistic notions of rhetoric are valuable because they conceive of rhetoric as an art. It does not “strive for cognitive certitude, the affirmation of logic, or the articulation of universals” (37), the very conditions that allow for sexist treatment of public women. Rather, if we conceive of rhetoric as “the art which seeks to capture in opportune moments that which is appropriate and attempts to suggest that which is possible” (36), we create more room for alternate discourses and rhetors. Like the sophists, we should insist on “the most diverse range of human potentialities capable of cultivation by society, for which process public discourse, including the teaching of civic virtue, [is] essential” (Jarratt 64). Re-casting rhetoric in this light eliminates the divisive male/female binary which ultimately enables sexism and allows for a more productive public discourse. More practically, this means shifting our understanding of what it means to be a public figure: public figures should not be held to a universal (masculinist) standard of discourse. Women in the public eye should not be judged for what they are not compared to men. Rather, we should allow for multiple, nuanced subjectivities, none with a claim to primacy or correctness. Hopefully, this will lead to acceptance of diverse viewpoints and rhetors–regardless of their hairstyle.

Works Cited

Jarratt, Susan. Rereading the Sophists: Classical Rhetoric Refigured. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1998.

Poulakos, John. “Toward a Sophistic Definition of Rhetoric”. Philosophy and Rhetoric 16.1 (1983): 35-48.

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3 Responses to Sexism, Women, and the Media: The Sophistic Alternative

  1. mwatts1280 says:

    Thank you for posting this, Leigh, and thank you for citing Jarratt. The chapter we read from Rereading the Sophists last week is one of the best scholarly pieces I’ve read. Ever. Period.

    Related to your post, I am forever disgusted at Huffington Post’s insistence on focusing on what the first ladies of various countries wear to important events. Of course, their primary target is Michelle Obama. Though the headlines usually compliment the first lady’s style, unlike the Daily Mail’s despicable write-up of the Secretary of State, they still miss what I think is obvious–Michelle Obama is one of the most intelligent first ladies we have ever had. I wouldn’t care if she habitually wore eighties windpants under a moo moo; she’s still the first lady of the United States, and we should respect her by resisting the urge to continually tell the story of a woman whose most impression reasoning takes the form of fashion sense.

    These M.O. style pieces in HuffPo are also, tellingly, usually featured on the side of the web page to differentiate them from the main articles. There is even a visual move to communicate the secondary status of these articles. It’s so discouraging that this is still the world in which we live.

  2. Stephanie says:

    I think that this really connects to what Peggy Phelan talks about in her book Unmarked. Women’s bodies are always marked by what they wear. Rather than being women, we’re just mannequins, spectacles. Sigh.

  3. Jim Porter says:

    Jarratt’s Rereading the Sophists is really good — and each time I use it in a rhetoric history or theory class, its importance and value becomes even clearer and stronger to me.

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