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Elena Kagan's Crossed Legs: Why It's Time To Move On

May 27, 2010

In past weeks, coverage of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan has featured unsparing commentary on the Solicitor General's sexuality and appearance (in one instance, even devolving to a Kagan look-alike contest). The latest in narrow-minded analysis came last week from The Washington Post's Robin Givhan, who criticized Kagan with remarks like "she embraced dowdy as a mark of brainpower," and "she doesn't appear to ever cross her legs." (Although uncrossed limbs are no basis for political or personal analysis, Matt Gertz at Media Matters compiled an 8-image-strong debunking of Givhan's assertion a few days later.) Responding to an email asking for commentary on her false and sexist article, Givhan responded: ...I don't think writing about a woman's appearance in the public sphere is inherently sexist. And yes, I've written about both Alito and Roberts. How quickly people forget. Exactly. How quickly people forget...when it's a man getting skewered. In the cases of Alito, Roberts, and the countless other male leaders who've been criticized for their appearance, the conversation moves briskly along to other things. National coverage doesn't begin and end with rumors of sexuality, crass insults, and photographs of intramural sports, the way it has ever since the announcement of Kagan's nomination. It is assumed that men have more to offer than their appearance; women leaders are still not awarded even that much good faith. Columbia professor and former New York Times editor Luisita Lopez Torregrosa weighed in on the article, pointing out that Kagan isn't the first woman to come under Givhan's vacuous criticism: "She's got a knack for taking on middle-aged, influential women, women of substance, and tearing them apart," citing Givhan articles bashing Hillary Clinton and  2005 Supreme Court nominee Harriet Miers. And The Post has sanctioned all of it. (The paper has a history of condoning sexism, including staff writer Dana Millbank's unfunny inference that Hillary Clinton might be due for a "Mad Bitch" beer, and staff television critic Michael Shales's unthinking takedown of veteran journalist Christiane Amanpour as "the opposite of a perfect candidate" to host This Week, and giving preferential treatment to less experienced male reporters. Perhaps this all stems from the paper's dumbfounding lack of diversity. In any case, the problem much larger than Givhan's commentary is the media superpower funding it.) In the wake of this dire climate, even Senator Amy Klobachur (D-MN) found herself discussing Givhan's article in the Senate, saying "I never thought I would be discussing this in this chamber, but this was a major article and stirred much commentary all over the blogs...It is my hope that Solicitor General Elena Kagan will be considered on her merits, and not how she crosses her legs." In other words, Senator Klobachur was compelled to discuss leg-crossing not because she cared, but because she that's where the conversation had gone, and knew the that needed to change. Watch here: A lot of credit and thanks are due to our tireless partners at Media Matters, who track and publicize these developments quite literally as they happen. With writers like Givhan out there, and outlets like the Post giving its blessing, somebody needs to be ready to cry sexism when they see it.