The Ubiquity of Sleeveless…

Libby Copeland writes in Slate about sleeveless-mania…

There’s a reason why the women of TV news have embraced sleevelessness while treading carefully in matters like cleavage (sexy weather reporters aside). Bare arms read as a kind of smart-sexy, a look that women in positions of authority can pull off. Michelle Obama is responsible for this, as are socialites of the Manhattan cocktail circuit, for whom bare arms long ago became a currency of wealth and fitness. MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski and Chris Jansing are fans of the look, as is CBS’s Gayle King, and CNN’s Brooke Baldwin. Fit arms are about control, a state of poised strength you work at—so much so that supermarket magazines have accused Madonna and Angelina Jolie of pushing their exercise regimes too far, featuring their ropy, veiny biceps right next to close-ups of some other unfortunate’s cellulite. But if cellulite and cleavage can read as sloppy, toned arms are the very opposite; they’re all about intention and control. Which is why newswomen get to show them off. They are appropriate for early risers and Ivy League overachievers—the sexiness of success rather than vulnerability.

And yet. It’s telling that we now expect sexy at all from our TV newswomen. We haven’t always. Beauty, sure. When Diane Sawyer appeared in the ’80s in an off-the-shoulder evening dress on the cover of Vanity Fair, the decision caused such a stir that she was moved to remind a reporter that “there were no tassels involved.” But if you look back at images of newswomen from the ’80s and ’90s, they were notable for what they didn’t show. When MSNBC launched in 1996, Couric covered everything but her face, wearing a turtleneck under her beige blazer for the virgin broadcast. And women who’ve been on the air for decades tend not to go bare, either because they think it inappropriate to do so at their age or because they were schooled at a time when TV reporters didn’t do such things. In either case, clothing confers dignity. You can’t imagine Christiane Amanpour leveraging her erotic capital on the air.

It does, after all, matter when female voices of authority disrobe. Baring one’s skin, whether it’s décolletage or arms, remains an indicator of seriousness—are you going to look at me, or are you going to listen to what I’m saying? Because, as the Washington Post pointed out last year in a story about the blazer disappearing from newswomen’s wardrobes, male viewers appear unable to do both. A 2010 study found that the sexier the female anchor, the less men retain of what she says. They literally see instead of hear her. Rachel Maddow has said this is why she maintains a “conveyor belt of gray blazers,” in order to look the same for every broadcast.

“Don’t focus on what I’m wearing,” Maddow says. “Focus on what’s coming out of my face.”

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3 Responses to “The Ubiquity of Sleeveless…”

  1. As long as they shave their pits, it doesn’t matter to me.

  2. Ewwww…

  3. The reason that semi-sexy on-air dress codes happened is because cable news happened. Broadcast network news divisions once were (and probably still are to some extent) the service that the networks gave back to the public as partial justification for their FCC public airwaves use renewals. Television journalism was more of a profession then than the talent gig it is now. Was Barbara Walters even referred to as “talent” back when she was on Today? I doubt Cronkite or Huntley/Brinkley were.

    It was only tradition that kept the dress code relatively conservative when CNN came on the scene. A few years later, once the fierce competition among cable news channels ramped up, the dress code transition was probably inevitable.

    Despite what Rachel Maddow says (and I have no reason to believe she wasn’t absolutely sincere), even she is made up to appear more feminine than her norm for her nightly programme. Nothing wrong with that. Behind the eyeballs of viewers are their human emotions and preferences, many of which are subconscious, and these are the same ones that the bare shoulders seek to entice.

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