On The (Disappointing) Way Women Present Themselves And Nerd Prom 2015

101st Annual White House Correspondents' Association Dinner - Inside Arrivals

The preening, posing, and questions of “who are you wearing?” already perpetuate Hollywood’s ongoing quest to objectify women. To bring this sideshow to Washington is a problem.

Early on in our marriage my husband and I started to block off one Saturday in April to cook a special dinner together, crack open a bottle of wine, and settle in to watch the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on television. It didn’t take long for me to add an IRL experience of the event—lovingly dubbed “Nerd Prom” by the journalists who attend—to my bucket list. It isn’t every day that you get to see television cameras and paparazzi jockeying to catch dignitaries arriving for an event with their spouses—all having cleaned up remarkably well for an event taking place in staid, buttoned-up Washington, D.C. For me, this is like an annual fulfillment of my wish for America to hold its thinkers and doers in the same esteem as its reality TV stars.

I developed an obsession with the political realm in 1995, when, at 16 some schoolmates and I attended a week-long intensive program studying the political process in Washington, D.C. This was where I learned the most about putting critical thinking skills to work in reading, writing, debate, and even policy analysis. We were kept busy, but when my friends and I managed to come back together, inspired mischief was the result.

On the night of our final soiree there was another, fancier one taking place in the hotel. When my friend George and I heard that Gen. Colin Powell was giving a speech in another ballroom, we set off to find a way to sneak in. We listened to the future Attorney General’s speech from beneath perilously stacked chairs on a second-floor balcony. As we listened, we didn’t mind a bit that our semi-formal outfits were picking up layers of dust, and we swore that one day we would work in the upper echelons of politics in some form.

A few minutes after we returned to our own party and took our seats, the entire room erupted in gasps and screams. Angela Bassett strode in, looking like a reigning queen in an off-shoulder purple ballgown. Her posture informed the room that everything she was going to say was important. She walked up to the unoccupied podium, snatched the microphone from it, smiled, and was suddenly giving us a speech.

“I heard that the Presidential Classroom students were having their party over here and I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to come say hello to you wonderful people,” she began.

It turned out Bassett was an alum of the same program and it had changed her life. She may not have ended up working in politics, but the program encouraged her to become vigilantly aware of issues affecting the country and the world. She encouraged us to keep the lessons we’d learned as part of the core tenets of our lives, and many of us did.

Every kid in that ballroom was in shock that a celebrity like Angela Bassett left a fancy party with Colin Powell to come speak to us. But her surprise appearance was especially impactful to the girls in the room. Many of us had spent the better part of a week elbowing our way through breakout sessions and debates to be heard over the boys and gleefully cut their logic to shreds whenever we found the evidence to do so.

By the end of that week, some of those girls were surely wondering if and when we’d get to use those skills again. In 1995 there weren’t many examples of young, vibrant women for us to look to in journalism or politics for a serious, pull-no-punches model of what we might look forward to. It took an Ivy League-educated celebrity’s encouragement to make us believe our hype was more than just that and could be extended beyond the hotel entrance. Most importantly, the celebrity who had taken the time to step out of a high-powered political soiree to tell us to read, question, and explore was a woman of color—a woman of color who clearly had the skills to rub elbows with the men attending her gala whether they were in a ballroom or a boardroom.

The imagery from the encounter with Bassett kept me feeling as though the expectation to machete my way down a career path of my choosing was the new normal. I was comfortable with the idea, and as I entered my 20s I came to expect that other women my age would work with a similar ease of determination. It wasn’t until, after having children, I returned to that path ready to continue hacking away that I realized just how thick and thorny the vines and underbrush actually were. After a while I realized I would have to move a little bit slower, but I tried to maintain a presence that would be taken seriously by anyone who worked with me.

This past Saturday—even before I turned to the lead-in coverage for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner—I found myself feeling assaulted by an inexplicable backward pull against women’s progress as I noticed the way women in the media are portrayed—and the way portray themselves.

Before our Nerd Prom date night, I drove out to visit some friends in the country. After a languishing conversation on a porch overlooking the sun setting over a dove field, I climbed into the car to head home and turned on an interview on the Longform podcast. The subject was a foreign correspondent who has written for The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, and many more. The 30-year-old has often written about the horrific events surrounding the terrorist group Boko Haram, which was the focus of the episode. The problem was that I couldn’t get much out of the interview because I couldn’t stop wincing at this young—although seasoned—journalist’s voice and diction. The “likes” and “ums” were bad enough, but she kept pronouncing the last syllable of “Boko Haram” with a flat a, the way an American Midwesterner might pronounce the word “am.”

Disappointed, I changed to another interview featuring a freelance journalist who is closer to my age. This would’ve been impossible to ascertain if I wasn’t a follower of her work, however, because she sounded like a giggly 16-year-old girl who may or may not have been smoking a joint before the podcast.

I arrived home feeling aggravated and started groaning to my husband about people who claim feminism seeming to have forgotten the high standards placed upon its newest role models. He agreed, citing some bad experiences with interns, and we turned on the Nerd Prom coverage.

After 30 minutes I got up to pour a generous glass of wine. I felt as though the one red carpet performance of the year celebrating crafty policymakers and brilliant journalists ahead of the celebrity machine had been taken over by gossipy girls primping for the junior prom. The nails on a chalkboard for me were directly related to the quality of the commentary. I could go into a critique of President Obama’s no-holds-barred roast of every news organization in the business, or of Cecily Strong’s awkward routine combining easily reachable zingers with moments of slow, fuzzy reaches. These were the main acts of the show, and what came out of them was what was to be expected. What we shouldn’t expect or allow, however, is the denigration of women and women in the media, which is exactly what happened on Saturday night. The way many women were portrayed sent out a signal that directly contradicts the one my classmates and I received in 1995. Here’s a rundown:

Squealing

This is probably a personal thing, but within moments of turning to CNN, Poppy Montgomery squealed—literally!—over the sight of two of her heroes. No, They weren’t major political contenders or former presidents. Montgomery was beside herself as one of her colleagues interviewed figure skaters Tara Lipinksi and Johnny Weir. Thankfully, Montgomery regained her professional composure and raised some great questions about the ethics of having the annual roast at the same time there were riots happening down the road in Baltimore.

The Dresses

I wasn’t going to talk about the way women in media were dressed for Nerd Prom. I’m sticking to that as it applies to women who were actually in attendance. But just as it would be inappropriate for Bret Baier of FOX News to appear on air in a wifebeater tank top, we probably didn’t need to see sparkly boobs contrasting against black anchor chairs as we did that night.

The Red Carpet Show

This is pretty simple. The preening, posing, and questions of “who are you wearing?” already perpetuate Hollywood’s ongoing quest to objectify women. To bring this sideshow to Washington to occupy the same space as President Obama’s words: “It’s not the factor of liberty, but rather the way it’s exercised, that determines whether or not liberty survives,” is a problem. Having a parade of women posing in order to be judged by their appearance undercuts the poignancy of a tribute to journalists who’ve lost their lives while exercising the right to tell the world the story of its own atrocities. That’s what I would call a global PR problem. We’re showing the world that Americans don’t care and don’t want to know about anything considered uncomfortable.

On MSNBC, political commentator Tara Setmayer and Patrick Gavin, who directed the documentary Nerd Prom, expressed grave concern for the loss of journalistic integrity on display. “It waters down what the dinner is supposed to be about,” Setmayer said. This is made even worse upon the realization that the White House Correspondents’ Dinner’s popularity only skyrocketed once the White House Correspondents’ Association started focusing the party on glitz, glam, and flash-in-the-pan social media notoriety. This, in favor of increasing the amount of money given to its scholarship recipients that night (roughly $89,000). The next generation of journalists in attendance were bright and perceptive. Naturally they were watching to see where their focus should lie when they’re the ones filling those seats one day.

As Gavin mentioned, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner should be about “…our [the press] biggest moments reflecting well on us.” Turning this annual party into a high-dollar extravaganza highlighting everything that doesn’t change in Hollywood camouflages the wins achieved by the news industry. We can’t have commentator seats filled with sparkles and jewels while allowing unconcerned movie stars to overshadow the people who keep each other honest while guiding our country through its latest round of problems. Doing so tells the 16-year-old girls of 2015 that no matter how assertive and focused they are about career goals, in the end they’ll still be nothing but painted dolls whose ability to change the world continues to be hindered by the stereotypes Hollywood keeps in the national consciousness, all thanks to a larger pocketbook and smaller social conscience that doesn’t match.

Shani Gilchrist is a critic, essayist, and freelance journalist. She writes about the arts, culture, and race while attempting to figure out why Americans find “diversity” to be a scary word. Her essays have appeared in Equals, Vol. 1, and State of the Heart, Vol. 2: South Carolina Writers on the Places They Love (Fall 2015, USC Press). Shani is writing a memoir while also performing the duties of homework-checker, boo-boo kisser, and dog cuddler. Find her at ShaniGilchrist.com, and on Facebook. Her Twitter handle is @ShaniRGilchrist.

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