The XX Factor

Depressing Double Standards

Hanna and Jessica , I have been at war with several Facebook friends all day today over the Givhan piece. Like you both, I found it sexist and insulting. But some of my friends thought Givhan was actually praising Kagan for subverting sexist stereotypes and marching to the tune of her own frumpy, style-free band. Maybe. Maybe the real problem is that much as I admire Givhan’s work, the task of close-reading Washington’s fashion choices will always privilege more stereotypes and double standards than it debunks. Women are always skewered someplace along the Madonna-Whore axis, and men are gently teased for wearing a parka.

Here was Givhan on Harriet Miers ’ twitchy, adolescent eyeliner-hand and famously, on Hillary Clinton’s cleavage . Is her glancing reference to Sam Alito’s forgettable wardrobe in the Kagan piece enough to innoculate the column against charges of sexism? Not really. It’s not just the repeated references to Kagan’s open legs that offend. It’s the fact that such a column would never, ever be written about a man , and we all know it. Kagan is faulted for both conforming and not conforming, for caring about her looks and for not caring, for being willfully unsexy and therefore (tah dah!) obviously very smart. Givhan didn’t create the double-standard that allows women about a millimeter of sartorial space in which to operate in public life, and I suppose you can’t fault her for playing to it-that’s her job. But it doesn’t make the column any less depressing to read, or Post readers any less depressed by having to read it.

Photograph of Elena Kagan by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.