When the Israeli media began to mercilessly mock its First Lady, Sara Netanyahu, for the form-fitting and partly transparent lacy black dress that she wore to yesterday’s Knesset swearing-in ceremony, it wasn’t just the feminist in me that cringed. It was the Israeli.
Official Israel likes to present itself as progressive, especially when it comes to women and the fashion industry. I personally sat in the audience at the Jewish Federations’ General Assembly in Baltimore this November and listened to Ambassador Michael Oren boast about how Israel has imposed a law banning overly skinny fashion models. And to the extent that the country combats ideals of female beauty that perpetuate dangerous body image issues, it deserves our plaudits. But when it then turns around and positively rips a woman to shreds over a perceived fashion faux pas, it proves that sexism is alive and well, not just in its religious sector, but in its secular media culture as well.
Let’s take a quick survey of yesterday’s media reactions. On Erev Tov with Guy Pines, a popular TV entertainment news program, fashion critic Dorin Attias spent three minutes blasting Sara’s “cheap” and “inappropriate” dress, comparing her to the Michelin Man and suggesting that her stylist must be related to Stevie Wonder.
In Hebrew-language daily Yediot Ahronot, Shelly Gross declared, “It’s unanimous: the stomach-revealing dress was a mistake,” and took the opportunity to remind readers that they should opt for an outfit that’s tight or transparent—but not both.
A Ynet gossip column likewise called the outfit “a mistake,” explaining that such a dress generally “doesn’t go well with a stomach that’s not flat” and adding that “it’s hard to see the beauty of the dress with what’s stuck there in the middle.”
Even Haaretz—a respected liberal daily—ran a disappointing article. Under the headline “What in the world was Sara Netanyahu thinking when she got dressed?” Allison Kaplan Sommer noted the “swift and harsh” nature of the Israeli media’s reactions, but didn’t bother to interrogate the assumption that “if, like Sara, you aren’t built like a model, you cannot wear skin-tight clothes that show your stomach […] and you must particularly take care never to do so if you are going to be in a situation that forces you to sit in a soft, low chair, where anything that can bulge, will bulge.” Instead, she suggested that the fashion police, though “merciless,” was simply “pointing out the obvious.”
The American Jewish media didn’t do much better. Commenting on Sara’s dress, JTA complained, “Except for a black band covering her bust, everything north of the waist was on full display. Who does she think she is, Beyoncé at the Super Bowl?”
Meanwhile, the Jewish Daily Forward ran a blog post claiming that the outfit’s implicit message was “look at my breasts” and that it made Sara look “more like a caricature of a cougar in one of the “American Pie” movies than a cool and classy first lady à la Michelle [Obama] and Jackie [O].” Despite its overall critical appraisal, this post, at least, saw fit to highlight two “silver linings”:
First, we could read [Sara’s] choice as a bold, political move in a country where women’s faces in advertising are considered scandalous because certain religious Jews just can’t handle the sight of women’s flesh, even if it is just their heads. Second, this dress, with all of the awful judgement behind it, shows that Sara Netanyahu is not being bossed around by some strategists and managers. Nope, this is a woman who clearly makes her own choices, and stands by them, or, well, in them, for better or for worse.
If there’s any media conversation at all to be had about Sara Netanyahu’s fashion choices, these types of alternate readings should be dominating it. Instead, as in the Forward post, they’re relegated to the status of an afterthought. Either that, or the media assumes—as Attias and others did—that Sara was not an active agent here, and that the outfit was carefully chosen for her to signal to the ultra-Orthodox that they would not be welcome in a Netanyahu government. Or, worse, it’s suggested that everyone—including Benjamin Netanyahu—is simply too terrified of this woman to tell her how she really looks.
Amidst all of this cringe-inducing bluster, only one person seems to have gotten it right, and that’s Israeli politician Limor Livnat, who called out the media today for propagating a “chauvinistic discourse.” She wrote:
There’s something very sad in the fact that, on a day when a record number of 27 talented women, many of them feminists, were sworn in to the Knesset, specifically on this day there are those who choose to lash out at this woman in such a superficial and shallow way.
It is sad, yes. And, in a country that publicly prides itself on its progressive attitudes toward women, it’s also plainly hypocritical.