Thursday, May 29, 2008

It’s All in the Clothes

MMW thanks bint battuta for the tip!

Why do articles mention women’s clothing when it’s not relevant? Exhibit A: an article on the status of prostitution in Afghanistan (you might recognize it from Friday links). Exhibit B: the story of an attempted kidnapping, from the arms of the child’s grandmother, in Iraq. “A” was written by Reuters and published by Al Arabiya, and “B” was in an LA Times blog, but both make the same mistake.

We’ll look first at the Afghanistan-based Reuters reporter, who can’t seem to stop judging women’s appearances. The writer interviews a few women who have turned to prostitution to support themselves. For each interviewee given more than a line in the story, the writer notes her appearance.

"I had no other way but prostitution," says the pretty teenager, dressed in tight blue jeans with a black veil pulled loosely over her head.

Hmm. Is her clothing relevant? Is the fact she’s a “pretty teenager” relevant? Perhaps — if you’re trying to imply that women who are pretty, wear Western clothes (jeans), and only wear their veils “loosely” cannot help but succumb to the temptation of prostitution. It would be better journalism to describe the poverty and limited choices that led women to this job, not their fashion. Nasrin, another source, is described as a “stylish 24-year-old dressed in a white burqa but wearing fashionable jeans underneath.” Because that’s what women are like under their burqas: stylish and fashion-conscious. They buy “fashionable jeans” even when their prostitution is so that they can maintain their families. Hmm.

The LA Times takes a different approach. Some mentions of clothing are useful, such as in the description of the man who tried to kidnap a toddler. But others seems wholly unnecessary, like the description of the mother of the child, quoted here (emphasis mine):

“My mother was carrying my son, Humam, a year and 8 months, and was walking a bit ahead of us, a few meters as I remember,” said the veiled woman, who asked to be identified only by a traditional nickname.

Wait! We also need to know what the child’s grandmother wears:

"A vicious monster came out from nowhere to attack me,” said the 58-year-old woman wrapped in black, who did not want her name published.

Why do we need to know that the women are “veiled” and “wrapped in black”? Perhaps it’s to imply weakness, leading to the attack. Perhaps it’s linked to the fact neither woman gave her name, equating veils and black clothes to lack of identity.

Description can be useful in news articles. It can serve to give a more thorough understanding of a person’s personality. These descriptions of clothing, though, aren’t accompanied by any other details — no facial expressions, unconscious habits, tone of voice. And rightly so: These aren’t profiles. Unnecessary details reveal a lot — not about the people the journalists wish to describe, but about their own judgments of these women.