On Sunday night, a contestant for the Miss USA beauty pageant, Marissa Powell, was asked about gender-based wage discrimination, answered unintelligibly, and, in the words of many, became our new Miss South Carolina. She also became the latest “Silly Woman,” or what you might call a public woman who isn’t only mocked for saying something stupid, but who is also used to legitimize and advance the view that women just aren’t that serious.
You know the Silly Woman. She’s Miss Utah and Miss South Carolina, but she’s Sarah Palin, too. She’s Kim Kardashian, Paris Hilton, and any Real Housewife. Generally she’s any famous, attractive woman who has said at least one stupid thing and can therefore be fit neatly into the stereotype that pretty women are too pretty to be smart (and women who aren’t pretty don’t matter in the first place).
There are Silly Men, too, but they aren’t pilloried the same way. The good-looking and indelicate-with-words Olympic swimmer and reality TV star Ryan Lochte is largely adored for his mumbled interviews. He’s teased, affectionately, but most of what he says passes in and out of the cultural consciousness. Meanwhile, people quoted Jessica Simpson’s tuna-related inquiry, on her 2003 reality show Newlyweds: Nick and Jessica, for years. If people readily admitted Jersey Shore’s The Situation was dumb, Snooki was that much dumber. Silly women have more staying power.
Perhaps this view of the reaction to Powell’s response seems like an overreaction. But it would be much easier to laugh at her response — because of course it was funny — if it could be viewed in a vacuum, where her gleeful, sexism-laced public mocking didn’t immediately call to mind similar treatment of dozens of other women who, in one way or another, according to some subjective set of guidelines, messed up. It makes a person feel humorless, but it’s impossible to take the scorn lightly, to react objectively (as if that were possible for anyone, really), when one is all too familiar with the pattern Powell is a part of.
There are those, though, who claim objectivity anyway: It’s fine to make fun of Powell, and the only thing it’s about is her. But the alleged unseriousness of women is a very familiar topic of discussion these days: Take the current debate over why women’s magazines aren’t considered “serious journalism” by those who claim to know what is — like the American Society of Magazine Editors, the organization that runs the National Magazine Awards, which has a “service and fashion” category that “honors women’s magazines,” but no such category for men’s magazines.
In the New Republic recently, Jessica Grose wrote:
“One explanation for this assumption is that the type of “serious” journalism that women’s magazines do—an article about the Chinese marriage crisis in Marie Claire, a profile of political brothers Julian and Joaquin Castro in Vogue, a piece about how to spot an ovarian cyst in Cosmo—isn’t respected as much as the “serious” journalism in men’s magazines.”
Taken piece by piece — each story, each movie, each TV show, and each woman in public — it might, of course, be fair that something a woman said or did in public was not particularly deep, or serious, or smart. But the only people who can afford to consider these things dispassionately, as individual events, are those used to seeing themselves everywhere, hearing voices like theirs and noting the respect they consistently earn, knowing there is no shortage of material in the works if something said or made by someone like them falls flat. Women are not afforded the same room for “error” that men are. Nobody is worried that The Internship bombing at the box office means we might not see another bromance in the theaters for another year or two until movie executives decide to try their luck on guys again — unlike the months and months of hand-wringing over whether or not Bridesmaids would succeed and what doing so (or not) would mean for movies about women. (Turns out, its indisputable success didn’t change much at all.)
There is so little space given to talking about women’s lives and experiences — outside the areas specifically reserved for us, that is — that each product and each public figure necessarily means that much more. You could call it sensitivity and you’d be right. How should women not take it personally if the stuff meant for us — much of which many of us don’t even like, because we’re not, whatever the self-proclaimed arbiters of taste might think, a uniform mass — is regularly dismissed as silly chick stuff? How do we not take it just a little personally when everyone seems so overjoyed to find a new silly woman to take the place of the last?
In order for each individual thing to mean a little less, there has to be a lot more of it to go around. An abundance of famous, flawed women and movies/TV shows/books/journalism by and for women means that there is room for some of it to be pointed out as stupider than the rest. It’s easier to not be defensive when we aren’t quite literally defending things said by people like us and made by people like us from constant critique and thoughtless dismissal. It would be easier to believe in objective taste and criticism if praise didn’t slant so heavily in men’s favor. The problem isn’t that women’s voices and stories and journalism isn’t ever serious — it’s that it isn’t taken seriously.