There’s a scene in “Pretty Woman” in which Vivian Ward (Julia Roberts) turns down an offer from Edward Lewis (Richard Gere) to be what she termed his “beck and call girl,” explaining that she craves a real relationship. Caught off guard and by means of explanation, he says, “I’ve never treated you like a prostitute.” Stunned, she replies: “You just did.”
The drumming women have received in the media recently reminded me of that exchange. And no, I’m certainly not likening all women to prostitutes. Rather, I was reminded of that scene by a troubling theme of late: The couching of misogynistic and belittling statements as expressions of understanding, empathy and even innocence.
The Sunday New York Times Magazine recently featured an interview with actress Tippi Hedren. Freelance writer Andrew Goldman interviewed “The Birds” actress about her history with the brilliant – and apparently lecherous – Alfred Hitchcock. He asked her whether, to shortcut the route to stardom, she considered sleeping her way to the top. This insinuation, coupled with a similarly-phrased question from an earlier interview, earned Goldman a rebuke from author and former journalist Jennifer Weiner, who tweeted:
“Saturday am. Iced coffee. NYT mag. See which actress Andrew Goldman has accused of sleeping her way to the top. #traditionsicoulddowithout”
A war on the social media battlefield ensued. Weiner, who’s openly discussed her struggles with weight and self-esteem, received this snarky response from Goldman, who tweeted:
“…Little Freud in me thinks you would have liked at least to have had [the] opportunity to sleep [your] way to [the] top.”
A back-and-forth exchange ended with Goldman’s apology, which Weiner accepted, and a four-week suspension for the now-contrite contributor.
Several pages later – and seemingly worlds apart – was a report on recently-ousted JPMorgan Chase executive Ina Drew.
Interestingly, the angle of the piece aimed to set Drew’s story apart from those typically published about women on Wall Street: “Superwomen” who lead double-lives, raising families at home and making trades at work, and never the twain shall meet.
Respected for her business acumen, Drew was also admired (by women) for her ability to thrive in both environments, overseeing a book of business worth billions and leaving work in time to make dinner for her family.
Yet, in recounting her final days with the company, in the wake of a $6 billion loss, the reporter cited her weight loss, worsening hand tremor and “smeared mascara” as indications that the ax soon would fall.
Now, tell me, if JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon’s days were numbered, would we read about his red eyes, set jawline or other “physical symbols of his emotional state”? I think not.
Perhaps the clearest example was just 48 hours ago, in a display that instigated a social media maelstrom. When asked what measures he would take to close the gender pay gap, Republican candidate for president Mitt Romney explained that he first noticed the absence of women in high-level positions when he was elected governor of Massachusetts. Of his struggle to find qualified female applicants for cabinet posts, he recounted:
“I went to a number of women’s groups and said, ‘Can you help us find folks?’ and they brought us whole binders full of women,” he said, wide-eyed, pausing for effect.
What he had hoped would be a charming anecdote about his efforts to “help” women in the workforce instead proved instant fodder for comedians (both professional and self-professed). Among the arrows slung:
- He didn’t take note that women weren’t well-represented in positions of power until 2002, when he was 55 years old? After all, as he’s fond of reminding us, he’s spent his career in the business world. Are we to presume, then, that women are adequately represented in the executive office suite?
- His expression of astonishment that women – yes, women – might be qualified for cabinet positions, and his implication that the thought hadn’t occurred to anyone on his staff.
- His follow-up to his cabinet story, in which he spoke about the need for flexibility in the workplace to attract female employees. What was intended to show his depth of understanding about the challenges working mothers faced instead came off as patronizing and simplistic.
What’s even scarier than the prospect of a president with such antiquated views is the idea that all these years later, in society, in business and in politics, today’s women still fight the stereotypes and superficial value constructs that previous generations fought so hard to eradicate.
Edward Lewis thought he was doing Vivian Ward a favor with his offer of a condo, a car and cash. But like Vivian, dreaming of a better life, today’s women want more.