As I was curating TucsonCitizen.com’s Twitter feed during the State of the Union address last night, I noticed that President Barack Obama’s seemingly uncontroversial statement that women ought to receive pay equal to men coincided with a lot of Twitter chatter about women — three specific women, in fact.
One woman who was the subject of much discussion was Gabrielle Giffords. There were many tweets about how her hug with the president brought them to tears. There were also many tweets about how great she looks in red. There were a lot of tweets about the first lady, Michelle Obama, most of them about her crisp blue dress and later, about who designed it and how much it cost. There were several tweets about Hillary Clinton and her appearance – to what degree she had aged, the appeal of her outfit, the wisdom of wearing a headband.
This chatter, at least in the #SOTU feed as I observed it, far outweighed any substantial conversation about these women or their public role. In the context of Obama’s statement, I found it especially disturbing. It’s not that I am against observations of appearance or fashion. In high school, I aspired to be a fashion designer. I do think how one presents oneself is important. But the volume of the how-she-looks chatter struck me as a symptom of the larger problem: Women are still judged disproportionately by how they look, even accomplished women with important policy roles.
Sure, House Speaker John Boehner was the target of a fair amount of superficial chatter about the darkness of his tan and the color of his tie, but there was about an equal number of observations about his behavior, his policy positions and political strategy. The same was not true in regards to three of the high-profile women present that night.
For a broader look at the Twittersphere reaction, check out 10,000 Words’s State of the Union infographic.