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On a recent "Meet the Press," host David Gregory presided in a tailored jacket and tie. Panelists Al Sharpton, David Brooks and Ken Burns appeared similarly professional. But the two female panelists, Andrea Mitchell and Carly Fiorina, seemed ready for cocktails, not coffee, in form-fitting dresses, arms naked to the world.
"Meet the Undressed" - or, to put it more melodramatically, "Meet the Oppressed." In addition to saying intelligent things, the women seemed required to flaunt their flesh and blink under three layers of eye shadow. They were, sartorially speaking, inferior.
Half naked may be the babe rule for entertainment shows, but must that dress code extend to women of substance on news programs? So it would seem.
I'm not the first woman to be astounded by the dolls on daytime cable news, their overall impression being arms, legs and lip gloss. Why anyone would think "sex sells" on information-oriented news shows is beyond me. The audience can find more and better (sex) on other channels.
Fiorina is a serious woman. She was CEO of Hewlett-Packard and a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat in California. But sleeveless in pistachio green, she looks less authoritative than Al Sharpton. Mitchell is NBC's chief foreign affairs correspondent, for heaven's sake. Why does she have to display her bare triceps in a red sheath at the age of 66? (I don't care how good her arms are.) A professional newswoman shouldn't have to do that at age 22.
By contrast, filmmaker Ken Burns gets away with (and looks fine in) the nerd combo of white shirt, brown jacket and matching brown tie. We couldn't see the panelists' footwear, but one doubts that Gregory, Brooks or Sharpton walked on the set tottering on stilettos. Such movement-inhibiting shoes would have been entirely plausible on Fiorina or Mitchell.
What the women gained in attention, they lost in stature. And in many cases, the women would rather not be vying for that sort of attention.
News executives and their stylists are pressuring smart women to serve cheesecake with the expertise - and justify the ugly business as evidence of gender equality: Ladies, you don't have to prove anything anymore, so forget about those '80s power suits and wear whatever party dress you want to on "Meet the Press."
"Ten years ago, professional dress meant a Talbots suit for women," the head of a marketing firm that consults with news networks told The Washington Post. "Things have changed for the better," he said. "The audience has equal regard for female and male anchors. It's given women far more liberty to be feminine."
If no one has to prove anything, why doesn't David Gregory wear a cut-off T-shirt and flip-flops?
Ann Curry, former co-anchor of NBC's "Today," told a women's magazine how she was pressed to wear "ridiculously high-heeled shoes." Mika Brzezinski complained that when she started on MSNBC's "Morning Joe," she was pushed into clothes that were "short, skimpy, tight." She somehow escaped and now wears sweaters and collared shirts, which is what Joe wears.
Rachel Maddow has dismissed the cable TV news look for women as "un-businesslike." How interesting that the minimally adorned Maddow is MSNBC's hottest commentator, challenging Fox News and attracting the younger demographic. I have no idea where Maddow gets her jackets, but Talbots would not be an impossibility.
You wonder whether the news executives tarting up their female journalists aren't the Ron Burgundys stuck in the age of disco. Perhaps they're the dated ones, not giving women the liberty to be serious.