Fashion

04.04.12

Sarah Palin on Today vs Katie Couric on GMA: Are They Objectified?

When Katie Couric and Sarah Palin appeared on rival networks on Tuesday, they sparked wide criticism and debate. But, fashion designer Norma Kamali writes, they both walked a fine line between female empowerment and objectification.

I know it may seem presumptuous for a fashion designer to discuss Sarah Palin and Katie Couric. But Tuesday’s morning show face-off between the two—with Palin on Today and Couric on Good Morning America—proved that every woman is a target of objectification.

The looks both women chose were not at all cookie-cutter. In fact, a lot of personal style went into both. Katie looked great in a skirt—she's got great legs. As for Sarah, I know she got a lot of attention for her wardrobe choice (and her potential wardrobe repeat), but I actually think she looked cool in pants with her hair down.

As a fashion designer, I inherently understand not only how clothes make a person feel, but also how they make others feel about you. How we dress ultimately affects how we perceive and are perceived. In my own profession—and it sounds awfully simplistic—but if I wear clothes that define my profession as a “fashion” designer, I’m treated as though my IQ dropped 20 points. I may be a 66-year-old business-owner, but dressed as a “designer,” I can be spoken to as if I just started my career. However, when I wear a suit, I am more empowered, and the interaction is astoundingly different. I know wearing a suit to a meeting defines me as a professional, smart business woman to be taken seriously.

Sarah Palin, as depicted in Game Change, began as an empowered governor of the state of Alaska. She ran a home, had a husband who was not intimidated by her bare confidence, and raised a child with disabilities. But she was unprepared for a reality that included a scrutiny no mere mortal could endure. Her flaws, her weaknesses, her misunderstanding of the temperature outside of Alaska made her vulnerable and objectified beyond what the bravest women might expect to endure. It seemed incredible to me that she showed enormous powers of rehabilitation when tutored and coaxed. Through all the criticism, she stayed strong and let it roll off her back, whereas others in her position might just hide, fake it, or break down and cry.

Katie and Sarah both have this unique experience to be part of a club of women who were at the height of empowerment and, then, the height of objectification.

Sarah Palin may not totally represent my beliefs, but she represents a case study of empowerment and objectification to the nth degree. Someone in your office may bring objectification to themselves by simply wearing a low-cut dress. She then may suffer the consequence of being known as the “easy” one with absolutely no proof exhibited. Sarah Palin may say things that are as provocative as the low-cut dress, but she, too, has to live with the consequence of her intellect and good judgment being questioned and criticized.

In many ways, Katie Couric is no different from Sarah Palin. They share in common the line we ride between being objectified and empowered. We may all think Katie is as empowered a woman as you can get, but I’m sure she experiences objectification and empowerment slipping back and forth in her day, well after the outrageous criticism of her performance on nightly news. Katie was the person no one could dislike and a part of everyone’s morning when the Today show ruled the morning time slots. The move to nighttime was not only an emotional breakup for a lot of people, but also a challenge to test her abilities to tell the news with credibility in a serious demeanor, without her friendly smile.

I thought in no time everyone would be as comfortable with her in the evening, and it would be over, but it seemed that the ratings kept dropping as time progressed. Then, the glasses appeared and her hair kept changing. Her clothes evolved, and there was no smile. Here was an example of what could be one of the most empowered women on television being horribly objectified. Public objectification is usually relegated to scandalous celebrities, but Katie and Sarah both have this unique experience to be part of a club of women who were at the height of empowerment and, then, the height of objectification.

It is ironic that it was the Katie Couric interview of Sarah Palin that created the shift for Katie to be seen in a light of empowerment—and when Palin began to be seen as an object during her Vice Presidential run. Looking back on it now, both were objectified and used as pawns, one against the other, all in the name of ratings. But they both allowed it. Is it any different than when we create an atmosphere for us to be judged and scrutinized when we wear a low-cut dress?

This fine line between objectification and empowerment will continue to be a part of Sarah Palin’s and Katie Couric’s experiences as women—in their careers, in their relationships, and in their self-image. The rest of us women, too, will share the very same experience, except we will not be doing so publicly.

The question is how much objectification we bring to ourselves as women—and how much empowerment can we create.