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Dressing Marcia: the Construction of Gender in the 1990s
by Eileen Stack
On October 3, 1994, The New York Times reported that the lead prosecutor in the O.J. Simpson trial, Marcia Clark, had visibly altered her public image, complying with specific instructions given by hired media consultants. After testing unfavourably with mock jurors in August, Clark was told that her business-like demeanour was perceived as "too hard, too cold" and potentially alienating to jurors who don't like, in the words of a jury consultant from Miami, "tough women lawyers".
In addition to chatting with the press about topics like grocery shopping and taking her children to the park, the "new" Marcia Clark sported a revised hairstyle and clothing wardrobe that included, "better kept hair that framed her face, warmer and lighter-colored dresses with softer fabrics, more jewellery."
Although this story may seem like but a trivial blink in the unabashedly sensationalist media circus surrounding O.J. Simpson's trial, this particular episode of one woman's attempt to appease unhappy "jurors" with an image transformation raises some interesting issues.
That the primary alterations made in Clark's new image were changes in her hair and clothes reveal the faith her consultants have in the power of dress to communicate information, particularly crucial for the image-dependant medium of television where Clark's own "trial" was being played out. The particular changes made to her clothes highlight the existence of a gendered dress code that, by simply lightening the shade of her suit, could help Clark approach the realm of "femininity". This dress code in turn was inspired by and constructed from traditionally-defined perceptions of appropriate feminine and masculine behaviour.
And it is these notions of appropriate masculine and feminine behaviour that this episode is really all about. The specificity of the changes made to Clark's person combined with the descriptive comments made by those tested reveal exactly how Americans, (a generalization I feel is warranted due to the fact that the review was made by a "jury" selected in anticipation of the demographic audience watching the televised trial), think and feel about the role and place of women in traditionally male-dominated occupations such as law. The demands made on Clark's public persona reveal a persistent intolerance for women challenging conventionally defined gender roles, pressuring her to espouse a particular kind of "femininity" that would negate the threat that the "tough woman" poses.
When Marcia Clark's consultants revamped her clothing wardrobe they illustrated their understanding of both the medium of television and the communicative function of dress. Being first and foremost a visual medium, the information television transmits is dependant on images. As Neil Postman points out, "on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery...television gives us a conversation in images, not words."1 Clark's consultants are well aware that even when she stops talking about child-rearing in order to debate her case in court, the details of her clothes will continue in their attempt to relay information and convince the audience of her "feminine" side.
In explaining how dress works to communicate information, sociologist Fred Davis states that, "over time...clothing styles...constitute something approximating a code"2, relaying data on its wearer's identity, whether it may be age, gender, or ethnic background. Davis also notes the implicit ambivalence of dress, warning against "ascribing precise meanings" since, "The very same apparel ensemble that "said" one thing last year will "say" something quite different today."3 Nonetheless, there are culturally constructed codes of dress which intend much the same message year after year. These conventions can be regarded as a kind of basic vocabulary in the shared language of dress etiquette in North America today.
Davis cites the origins of the differences of what he calls the "vestimental codes of the West", in, "The historic division of sexual roles in the culture of the West...this essentially equates maleness with occupation, breadwinning, authority, and the exercise of instrumental capacities, and femaleness with sexual allure, domesticity, child-rearing, subordinate status, and expressive display."4 The origins of these codes might go back fifty or even a few hundred years, but their evocation in the episode of Marcia Clark is testimony to their relevance and the relevance of what they represent in 1994.
Like any artifact, clothing bears the ideological imprint of the culture that produces it. Thus a belief in radically opposed gender identities (man being associated with the rational, woman with the emotional, etc.), produces a dress code that would seem to often be about illustrating this opposition. Traditional masculine clothing features sombre colors, angular design and practical, sturdy fabrics. Conventional feminine clothing features lighter hues of color, whimsical lines and is usually made of softer, less sturdy fabrics.
The "gendering" of dress has been further intensified by the separation of the sexes into difference spheres of work. Established in a time where the majority of work performed by women was denied the status of being "real work", (ie, work performed by a man) this division of roles translated into a paralleled division of dress styles and qualities. For example, clothing for men was contrived to facilitate their role working outside the home while clothing for women was either specifically designed to illustrate their family's economic/social status, or made of scraps of clothing haphazardly stiched together to do work limited to the private sphere of the home.
Over the years men cultivated a particular dress that came to convey their status as workers; the business suit. The business suit has come to symbolize masculinity and a man's place in the world of business and work. Women entering the "official" workforce, or the workforce previously dominated by men, lacked a comparable "suit": the only modes of dress available to women to were the informal work clothes worn in the private sphere or the decorative, impractical clothing such as Christian Dior's "New Look" of the 1950s whose primary goal was to emphasize, "every feminine charm"5 even at the cost of immobilizing women with corsets and stiletto heels. An alternative mode of dress was needed that would allow women to proceed in their careers unpestered by the fussiness of traditionally "feminine" clothing while conveying a look of status and authority.
The answer came in the 1970s in the form of a well tailored jacket and skirt in a dark hue; an appropriated "business suit" that permitted women to forget about the ever-changing and costly whims of fashion and focus on their jobs. This look, promoted in John Molloy's, The Women's Dress for Success Book, was dubbed the "Dress for Success" suit and quickly became the staple of the working woman's wardrobe.6
This is the kind of simple, conservative dress Marcia Clark wore prior to the criticism that motivated her image change.
Although there were no descriptive comments on her "before" wardrobe included in The New York Times article, its style and look can be inferred from what is not mentioned; if the new "lighter colored dresses with softer fabrics " are perceived as giving an overall impression of "softness" and "warmth" , then her "old" wardrobe which was labelled as being "too hard, too cold" can be presumed to have consisted of stiffer fabrics in darker colors. This darker, more tailored look would sum up the "Dress for Success" suit - a mode of dress that appropriated a traditionally masculine style of clothing in order to liberate women from the tedious whims of fashion and position them along side men of their equal.
So what was it about Marcia Clark's public persona that the jurors found so offensive and that the media consultants tried to alter through a "softening" of her dressing style? Well, if clothes reveal information about the wearer and Clark wears the female equivalent of a man's business suit, then it's obvious that they don't like what she represents; a woman in a man's role. This truth is reinforced in the comment of the jury consultant who states that jurors don't like "tough women lawyers". This sentiment is typical of a mass of people who are still fearful and intolerant of women who challenge conventionally defined gender roles. In the case of Marcia Clark these mock jurors were offended, if not threatened, by the fact that she, as a woman, wasn't more "feminine". Her media consultants thus set about trying to make her more pleasing, more "womanly", coaching her to talk about her children and altering her wardrobe to include more "feminine" paraphenelia such as jewellery and pastel colored clothes.
The New York Times called the transformation of Marcia Clark, a "motherization", and it was clearly an attempt to save her from being perceived as a masculine, butch woman threatening the status quo - the aura supposedly emitted by her previous business-like demeanour. This kind of debate is in no way new to women who challenge conventional gender roles. A good example of this is the story of the television show Cagney and Lacey,(aired on CBS from 1981-88), which featured the lead characters of two smart, active, independent women working as police officers-another traditionally male-dominated profession. Any initial hesitations over comparing the two cases (Marcia Clark is about real life, Cagney and Lacey is a fictional show) can be waived with the fact that in both cases the "women" - whether that be the public persona of Marcia Clark of the characters of Cagney and Lacey - were (re)made for TV; the terms of femininity were negotiated while trying to please the opinions of middle America.
In her article, Defining Women: The Case of Cagney and Lacey, author Julie D'Acci describes the pressure to change and "feminize" the shows main characters as illustrating "the actual terms of cultural struggle over the meanings of femininity"7. Over the period of its seven year run the show was often attacked for featuring women characters as serious professionals, placing success in their carreers before their appearance or other so-called feminine priorities,8. Critics condemmed the characters of two streetwise New York policewomen for being too, "masculine", "inordinately abrasive, loud and lacking warmth".9
Bowing to pressure to "make safe"10 its female characters, CBS ordered a revamping that paralleled that of Maria CLark. This was done through a negation of the characters' more masculine elements with conventionally "feminine" traits. Among the alterations was a "radical fashion change" to the character of Chris Cagney in order to feminize her supposedly "too aggressive" persona.
D'Acci views this intolerance of women characters inhabiting traditionally male-dominated roles a part of, "a backlash against feminism";11 a negative reaction to the changes made by the women's liberation movement in the workforce. The attempt to "feminize" the characters, even on the superficial level of dress, is an attempt to negate these changes and to force women into respecting gender roles that they had rejected. This is not to say that, by definition, all "feminized" qualities and traditions are limiting or necessarily symbolic of oppression. Such a generalizing would wrongly devalue all that is construed as "female": a prejudice that feminists attempt to correct as part of their attempt to locate women's contribution and involvement in a culture that has historically undermined all things associated with the female gender.
Indeed, the reappropriation and use of traditionally "feminine " guises can be a powerful symbol of a woman's ability to eschew set gender roles. An example of this kind of action can be read in the actions of pop singer Madonna who, many believe, "consciously chooses and exploits"12 the clothing paraphilia of the female gender. Media critics John Fiske and E. Ann Kaplan perceive this act as an expression of "a female sexuality or pleasure that is not defined or circumscribed by patriarchal power,"13 and therefore liberating.
Although it may appear that in their adoption of traditionally "feminine" characteristics Cagney and Lacey or lawyer Marcia Clark are also reclaiming their feminine identity, there lies a crucial difference: unlike Madonna who personally selects whatever feminine paraphernalia suitable to her sense of self-expression, the characters of Cagney and Lacey and Marcia Clark were told, (by a reviewing American public), what items to espouse. The feminine identities the revamped women took on were defined and dictated by the mediating eye of a patriarchal culture. Marcia Clark's image transformation was not, therefor, an example of a tolerant culture allowing for a diverse range of gender roles but an illustration of its intolerance of women challenging conventionally defined "feminine" and "masculine" identities."
1 Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin, 1985. p7
2 Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992. 79
3 Davis, 79
4 Davis, 46
5 Wright, 9
6 Faludi, Susan. Backlash;The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Crown Publishers, 1991. pp174-5
7 D'Acci, Julie. "Defining Women;The Case of Cagney and Lacey." Private Screenings. Eds. L. Spiegal and D. Mann. Minneapolis:Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1992. p169
8 D'Acci, 174
9 D' Acci 181
10 D'Acci, 181
11 D'Acci, 184
12 Cvetkovich, Ann. "The Powers of Seeing and Being Seen:Truth or Dare and Paris is Burning." Film Theory goes to the Movies. 155
13 Cvetkovich, 156
Cvetkovich, Ann. "The Powers of Seeing and Being Seen:Truth or Dare and Paris is Burning." Film Theory goes to the Movies.155-169.
D'Acci, Julie. "Defining Women;The Case of Cagney and Lacey." Private Screenings. Eds. L. Spiegal and D. Mann. Minneapolis:Univeristy of Minnesota Press, 1992. 169-200.
Davis, Fred. Fashion, Culture and Identity. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Faludi, Susan. Backlash;The Undeclared War Against American Women. New York: Crown Publishers, 1991.
Margolick, David. "Remaking of the Simpson Prosecutor". The New York Times 3 Oct. 1994: A10.
Postman, Neil. Amusing Ourselves to Death. New York: Penguin, 1985.
Wajcman, Judy. Feminism Confronts Technology. Pennsylvania: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1991.
Weiner, Annette B.,and Schneider, Jane. Cloth and Human Experience. Washington: Smithsonian Institute, 1989.
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