After nearly 30 years in broadcast journalism, Katie Couric is finally allowed to present herself as sexy, says the Washington Post's Robin Givhan. And this is apparently something to celebrate.
Meditating on a recent Harper's Bazaar fashion spread, in which the first female solo evening news anchor poses in a "short -- very short -- skirt," a curve-hugging Calvin Klein dress and "the kind of platform Gucci heels that have been known to send professional models tumbling to their knees," Givhan writes, "[a]fter breaking ground in network news, after having folks debate whether she should have worn a white blazer on her debut show -- as if anything but black or navy proclaimed her less serious -- there are these images. Unapologetically, forcefully, I-dare-you, sexy." The photos offer "a full-throated, even exaggerated, rebuke of the notion that a woman must dress in a prescribed manner -- Suze Orman suits, full-coverage blouses, sensible heels -- to protect her IQ, her résumé and her place in a male-dominated work culture." Never mind Couric's Cronkite Award-winning evisceration of Sarah Palin, even -- just check out those shoes!
[T]here's a particular brand of power-positioning at play when a woman walks confidently into a room in a pair of heels that make those who'd be suffering vertigo blanch: How can she walk in those? Pure grit -- that's the explanation. And yes, please infer that if those four-inch stilettos don't draw tears from the woman wearing them, then neither will some ambitious colleague's backstabbing ways. Fashion, in this sense, is power.
Um, OK. But also, four-inch heels might convey power for Couric because without them, she's itty bitty -- which is high among the reasons why she's struggled to be taken seriously throughout her career. Givhan writes as though Couric's image challenges were the (stereo)typical career gal ones -- i.e., being treated as a sex object even while chafing in androgynous power suits -- but as a journalist, Couric's most famously suffered from an equally limiting but decidedly unsexy problem: She's adorable. Physically, Katie Couric comes across as the kind of person for whom hot pink capri pants with tiny embroidered palm trees were invented. A brief foray into Queen of Mean status notwithstanding, the adjective most often used to describe her is "perky." None of this comes up in Givhan's piece, which implies that Couric's bombshell factor has long been hidden under a boxy navy blazer, as opposed to a Lilly Pulitzer shift. But Couric herself speaks about it in the interview that accompanies the photo spread. Phoebe Eaton writes:
She points to a photo on the wall of herself up to something important with General Ray Odierno in Iraq. "I look like a little peanut compared to him, don't I?" she asks. She looks like she's about 16 years old. It's the Tinker Bell nose. "I know," she says glumly. "That was a real detriment for me earlier in my career because I had a kind of young look. Those were the days."
While the look Couric's sporting in Bazaar is indeed a departure from what she's known for, then, it's not because she's spent the last 25 years eschewing markers of femininity. It's more because she's been boxed into a single image of femininity that all but rules out raw sex appeal (no matter how widely admired her legs are) -- the Madonna instead of the Eve. And both images are equally effective when it comes to diminishing a smart woman's perceived gravitas. Givhan seems to be suggesting that Couric deftly avoided falling into the hot bimbo trap for long enough that she can now afford to mix sexiness with power, but that ignores the fact that, like Paula Zahn -- whom CNN regrettably introduced as "just a little sexy" 10 years ago -- Couric established herself as a powerful woman despite people's intense focus on her gender and appearance, not by successfully distracting them from it. "Sometimes I feel like a little Barbie that people dress," she told Eaton. If her recent wardrobe choices have tended toward the dull and colorless, it's because "With the job I have, it's much easier to pick apart what women are wearing, and I think the less ammo everybody has, the better."
So I'm having trouble seeing Couric's adopting a sexy bitch look for a fashion shoot as a big step forward. If she had historically been seen as sexless because her viewing audience and potential employers were so overwhelmed by her intelligence, talent and unisex blazers they naturally afforded her exactly the same respect as her male peers, never giving a moment's thought to her looks or gender, I might be cheering this reminder that a woman can be simultaneously powerful and sexual. But Couric's really just one more example of an exceptional woman who managed to become successful even while everyone was relentlessly hung up on her appearance and femininity. No matter how different this style is for her, at the end of the day, it still leaves us talking about her face, legs and hair at least as much as her accomplishments. Talking about those things is Givhan's job, granted -- but what excuse do the rest of us have?