It’s a day of the week, which means someone has a whole bunch of opinions about what a woman is wearing.
Today, that woman is Jana Shortal, a Minneapolis newscaster, who went on the air to cover Jacob Wetterling’s tragic kidnapping, a case which had gone without closure for nearly three decades. At least one person, though, had trouble focusing on the story because of their totally arbitrary and asinine problem with Shortal’s decision to wear skinny jeans.
A Star Tribune columnist named C.J. wrote a column (that was then taken down), in which she called Shortal’s outfit (which “looked great from the waist up in a polka-dot shirt and cool blazer”) “inappropriate,” saying her “skinny jeans did not work.”
The Tribune has since apologized, as has C.J., who says it was a mistake to criticize Shortal’s appearance, but “was trying to urge maximum respect for [Wetterling’s] family.” It’s unclear, though, how drawing so much attention to the clothing, while ignoring the words, of another person is showing any sort of respect herself. Shortal pointed out as much in her beautiful response (which you can and should read in full on Facebook). That the burden of respectability C.J. put on Shortal was only not being met inside C.J.’s own head.
But have you no dignity, person with the name I won’t write?
You wrote about clothes in the darkest moment of Minnesota news history.
You wrote about jeans.
You were asked to create joy.
Help your neighbor.
You wrote about jeans.
You took the life out of what was meant to be a tribute to a life lost.
Shortal has written before about her lifelong refusal to wear the “lady uniform,” and the response that’s gotten her, both as a child and adolescent, and now as an adult in a visual profession.
Here is a sample of some of the insults hurled my way via the internet: “Do you shop in a dumpster?” “My dog has better hair than you.” “Your clothes are so hard to look at my TV broke.”
It hurt. Even worse, these words caused me to max out every department credit store credit card I could find. I just wanted to find the me everyone wanted. So I could focus on telling my stories again.
But the truth is, the pressure was not just external. It also came from within. Something in me chose to listen, something in me wanted to conform to viewers’ expectations. And that’s how I lost a part of myself, a part of my identity. When I looked in the mirror I no longer saw the real me.
She now delivers news for a show on a network that encourage her to wear whatever clothes she wants and feels comfortable in, which is depressingly revolutionary in its lack of all kinds of hang-ups. Because that’s all C.J.’s problem, and the problem of everyone like her, is: hang-ups. Personal, arbitrary, only-this-important-in-our-own-minds hang-ups.
Shortal was seen as disrespecting the story she was delivering because her attire was deemed unprofessional. Here are other things that various people, groups, and/or networks have at one time or another thought of as unprofessional or otherwise unacceptable in female newscasters or women in other fields:
You might very well be reading this and thinking “saying pregnant women shouldn’t be on our TVs is ludicrous and insulting, but jeans actually ARE unprofessional.” I’ll admit I initially had a flash of that sort of thought. But then where do we draw the line between deciding a woman delivering the news shouldn’t be wearing jeans and the dress on the weather anchor above? Or the problem previous generations had with women wearing pants in general? Or women delivering the news in the first place? I’m sure a lot of people found that distracting at first.
We all have a lot of ideas about what would be the official permanent and universal Appropriate Behavior in our fantasy monarchies. But in the actual world, all this amounts to is blatant shaming, especially when the shamer has a media-sanctioned platform.
C.J. was only one voice, but it was a voice that was given amplification, and one that is representative of so many more. This is the voice that assigns baseless meaning to anything it doesn’t understand, anything not seen as neutral. Gender, sexuality, age, clothing, weight, skin color— all of these are things that various people at various times try to fill with meaning.
C.J. (and so many like her) saw a woman wearing jeans and couldn’t reconcile that with the official newscaster uniform they see in their head. So she assumed it was a deliberate deviation, rather than a growth of inclusion. And because she couldn’t move forward until she’d filtered this picture through the narrative manufacturing channels of her brain, she created a story for the outfit, assuming Shortal was more interested in hipness than the news. And while she was writing that story of someone else’s motivations in her head, she completely missed what Jana Shortal was actually saying.
The silver lining here is all of the people who don’t have their own column, who don’t have an amplified voice, who spoke up individually to say that that is nothing but bullshit. That Shortal and everyone else who is just trying to exist naturally can, as Shortall put it, “be seen not for the cut of her jeans, but on the content of her content.”
I am no longer going to say I am sorry that I am not like the others you see deliver your news.
And you are no longer going to penalize me for that.
She tried. And failed.
But she didn’t fail me.
And she didn’t fail you - all of you - women, men, girls, boys, queers, straight, oddballs, straight laced, nerds, jocks, left outs, too left ins, misfits.
Tonight we are stronger as one.
Tonight we are one.