Yesterday afternoon, FishbowlDC’s Betsy Rothstein posted an instantly controversial piece about how several young female reporters in Washington are apparently going “for the sexpot look” with their Twitter avatars. She named reporters including Ashley Parker of the New York Times (seen here) and Amie Parnes of The Hill as belonging to this supposed group of sexy sexpots. Tweeting journalists exploded with anger; some of them changed their avatars to burka-clad women in protest. But has Rothstein possibly-maybe hit on an interesting point, however obnoxiously? Is it important for young professionals to be seen in traditional poses of professionalism in their Twitter avatars or not? And why don’t we see more men peering up at the camera with big eyes and a coy smile?
It’s important to note that Rothstein’s piece addressed these questions in a totally ham-handed way. “An unusual trend is developing among campaign and White House reporters of the XX persuasion,” she wrote breathlessly. “They’re using provocative, sometimes sexy photographs of themselves for their Twitter accounts.” She interviewed one PR expert who concern-trolled on cue, and an advice columnist who wasn’t troubled by the supposed trend at all. And the examples Rothstein pointed to are hardly X-rated. One of them is just direct portrait of a (gorgeous, for what it’s worth) reporter who happens to be wearing an evening gown exposing her — gasp! — shoulders; it’s hard to imagine Rothstein slamming a male reporter in a tux. The other two examples, Parker and Parnes, are presumably deemed sexpots because of the way they’re posing, not the clothes they’re wearing.
Journalists who read Rothstein’s column were not sympathetic. Some, including Matt Yglesias and Michelle Fields, replaced their avatars with burka-clad women. Many more heaped scorn on Rothstein via Twitter. She did not respond well, to put it mildly. Click here to watch her side of the meltdown; in one particularly low moment, she called Gawker’s Maureen O’Connor a skank. O’Connor responded by linking to a photo of Rothstein herself baring her shoulders in a professional photo, sarcastically inviting Rothstein to mud-wrestle, and giving a funny interview to Vanity Fair about the insult. Suffice to say, O’Connor won this round.
Here’s the thing. The Fishbowl post was terrible, and Rothstein’s reaction to the ensuing furor was worse. But the initial post raises a question I admit I have had before, specifically about Parker’s avatar. Parker is seen on a bus, leaning forward — or backward? — with her head tilted to the extreme. She is almost winking as she smiles. It’s very, very difficult to imagine a male reporter striking the same pose in his profile photo. (Parnes’s portrait is shot from below; she looks off to the side with tousled hair and a barely-there smile. It’s not a traditional portrait by any means, but other than the hair it’s not so different from how some male reporters portray themselves.)
The whole thing reminded me of “Men-ups,” photographer Rion Sabean funny photo project in which he asked men pose as traditional pin-up girls. And it also called to mind this experiment with putting male superheroes in Wonder Woman’s coquettish pose. When we stick men into traditional female poses — or vice versa — and it looks weird, there’s something interesting going on. Maybe not scandalous or skanky, but interesting nonetheless.
What does it mean when a full-time reporter at the best newspaper in the country poses so girlishly? (Parker, for the record is awesome. Here’s my favorite of her recent pieces from the Republican campaign trail.) What does it mean that my own Twitter avatar has me squinting, smiling, and cocking my head? For that matter, what does it mean that my first Twitter avatar was a map, and after I changed it to my face looking passably cute-ish my follower count sped up? Does it mean nothing, and that anyone who mentions it a misogynist? Or does it mean that sometimes women feel the need to present ourselves online as cute, a little silly, not taking ourselves too seriously? I think that’s a question worth asking.