Entry from February 3, 2009

I can’t resist this telling juxtaposition. In yesterday’s Washington Post a front page story by Brigid Schulte breathlessly announced a “Fresh Look at Martha Washington: Less First Frump, More Foxy Lady.” Here’s how it begins:

This just in: Martha Washington was hot. Or at least hotter than we thought. Our image of the mother of our country, vague and insubstantial as it is, is drawn from portraits painted after her death showing a frumpy, dumpy, plump old lady, a fussy jumble of needlework in her lap, wearing what could pass for a shower cap with pink sponge rollers rolled too tight underneath. But today, 250 years after Martha and George tied the knot, a handful of historians are seeking to revamp the former first lady”s fusty image, using the few surviving records of things she wrote, asking forensic anthropologists to do a computerized age-regression portrait of her in her mid-20s and, perhaps most importantly, displaying for the first time in decades the avant-garde deep purple silk high heels studded with silver sequins that she wore on her wedding day. Take that, Sally Fairfax. History is about to be revised.

My mind went back to Bill Clinton’s comment on the mummy, nicknamed Juanita, that he saw in a National Geographic Society exhibition “You know, if I were a single man, I might ask that mummy out. That’s a good-looking mummy.” There is something about those who lust after the dead, or who expect others to, that is beyond creepy. And the corollary of that is that there is also something more than a bit off about those who profess to find the dead unattractive. What has Martha Washington, now dead for over two centuries, to do with either frumpiness or sexual attraction? What’s the point of being dead unless you can present yourself to posterity as who you were and what you accomplished, not how sexually alluring or otherwise an equally dead contemporary might have found you?

But in the same front page slot of the same paper only two days earlier there had been another story by Paul Farhi headed: “For TV”s Female Reporters, It”s Strictly a Sideline Job: From NFL to NBA Telecasts, the Booth Still a Glass Ceiling.” Here’s how that one begins:

In 26 years as a TV sports journalist, Andrea Kremer has done just about everything. She”s produced and directed highlight programs, reported on the Olympics and the NFL, hosted panel-discussion shows and won Emmy Awards for her feature stories. Tomorrow, she”ll be part of NBC”s Super Bowl reporting team. There’s only one gap in Kremer’s otherwise glittering résumé: She”s never done play-by-play of a major league game. Nor has she ever been asked to be the “color” analyst on a game broadcast. “That,” she says with a slight twinge of anguish, “is another story.” It’s a story familiar to Kremer’s female colleagues.

Taken together, these two stories might almost make you wonder how they could possibly have appeared in the same paper. Yet both are, in their very different ways self-parodies of the Post’s ethos. Remember the joke about the Post headline that would greet the Apocalypse? “World Ends! Women and minorities seen as being most affected.” That goes back at least twenty or thirty years. But the vulgar leering and lasciviousness strikes me as being a more recent development. Never mind. Both are equally characteristic of the paper today. No one could be surprised, I think, either at its frankly treating women as sex-objects or at its puritanical concern for women’s “opportunities” based on the assumption that equity and justice demand gender-blindness in all areas of our public life. Anyone trying to understand our media culture of today would do well to start from this apparent contradiction.

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