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Whither Softball: Is WSJ's Kagan Photo Gossip-Mongering?

May 12, 2010

Much has already been made of yesterday's Wall Street Journal front page photo of Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan stepping up to the plate for a softball game in 1993. Some leaders in the LGBT community have called it "too easy a punchline," after national gossip last month insinuated that Kagan is a lesbian. The photo caption reads "Court Nominee Comes Up to the Plate," apparently alluding to Kagan's confirmation hearings and her potential position as a "rookie" Justice. And WSJ's accompanying article is actually pretty positive toward Kagan, highlighting the strengths that Obama and others have praised her for, while acknowledging conservative criticism as well. And there's no mention whatsoever of Kagan's sexuality – or even the White House commentary on it. But the question seems to be whether Kagan's credibility is undermined by the photo. Just as the series of provocative images in a Newsweek profile of Sarah Palin subverted serious analysis of Palin's politics, WSJ's front page steers conversation around Kagan back to her personal life – and, arguably, her sexuality. We might not like it, but stereotypes around women and athletics persist, and LGBT leaders are right to argue that WSJ editors can't play dumb on the potential insinuations made by the photo. With so much attention paid to the appearance of women leaders – and some blatant and disparaging comments made in a recent days about Kagan – is any photograph of a powerful female automatically an editorial reference to her sexuality, or “lack thereof”? Maybe the fact that we remain so unused to seeing women in sports blinds us to an innocent and hokey visual pun from the Wall Street Journal. Or maybe their innuendo is so sly that that they can plead innocence – and gain readership and gossip – all in a day's work. I'm stumped. What do you think?