The night of the State of the Union Address, the local news on NBC devoted a couple of minutes to a story that championed the fashion sense of one of the guests of honor, discursively linking the honoree’s taking notice of footwear to the honoree’s gendered identity. Noticing shoes became an index of woman-ness, of femininity. Liking shoes makes a woman. Awesome message, NBC. Just what our already strictly gendered society needs to hear. The entire eye-roll-inducing segment can be found here. Take a gander.
It began innocuously enough. The anchor, Robert Kovacik, began to tell viewers about a couple of local residents who received honorary invitations to the State of the Union Address. But nearly all of the story focused on the white woman talking about Jill Biden’s shoes, with only a cursory mention of the other honoree: a local lawyer named Juan Jose Radin. We learned nothing else about him, not even if he was interviewed. No, the entire story featured Sergeant Ashley Berg and how asking Jill Biden where she got her shoes may have landed her that ticket to the SOTU. This conjecture isn’t corroborated, it’s just that: conjecture. And yet NBC chose to harp on it. So I will harp on their choice of harpitute (shut up, let me have my fun).
Kovacik introduces Sergeant Berg thusly: “Ashley Berg has served two tours of duty in Iraq. A decorated sergeant, who is still [news-pause-for-effect] a woman.” And this line sets the tone, dictates the focus, and frames Berg as both frivolous and doing her gender proud in spite of being an Iraq War veteran. In the context of the binary gender system in which Americans live, this frames her being a sergeant–or in the military at all–as a masculine thing. But she is vindicated–that is, she retains her feminine gender identity–by liking shoes.
Because shoes are being constructed as a metonym of/for female interest, thereby indicating that the person doing the liking is gendered female. Is a real woman. (Thanks, American conflation of gender and sex!) Liking shoes is being linked to the grand category of “things women like,” and is thus gendered feminine in this segment, and arguably much of the time in the American imagination. (I want to say it’s an acting second-order indexical, but I’ll have to check my ling-anth math on that one.) Anyway, the point is that Kovacik, or whoever wrote the segment, is making a big deal out of what would normally be considered a woman-y thing to like because this particular woman’s career is in the military. Part of her identity is being a soldier, which is a traditionally male-gendered pursuit and identity. This constructed juxtaposition is the reason there’s a 2-plus minute story at all.
Let’s be clear: I’m not critiquing the sergeant’s taking note of Jill Biden’s shoes, her liking shoes in general, or anything like that. Liking shoes is not bad. Noticing them in the middle of Iraq does not make Sergeant Berg one thing or another. No, my beef is with NBC’s framing of the story, which they decided was going to be all about this service person’s supposed shoe fetish/fixation. I’m not denying that the sergeant said what she said about shoes or claiming that the news story invented the fact that she genuinely seems to enjoy shoes. She said those things and is proud of having said them, and all that is grand.
My point is that NBC asked her the questions and edited her interview to make the focus on the shoes. They decided the story was going to be about how novel-and-yet-expected it was that a female soldier would still like shoes. That you could put war into a woman, but you can’t take the woman out of a soldier. The story-maker/interviewer, Robert Kovacik, was the one who framed the narrative as simultaneously surprising (look! even women soldiers like shoes!) and predictable (of course the soldier can’t stop thinking about shoes; she’s a woman!)
A little later in the story, Kovacik moves on to when Sergeant Berg visits the White House before the Address, “where Ashley once again notices what some may not.” What she notices is the interior decor of the White House. Once again, the story is choosing to focus on the sergeant’s taking note of fashion–of both sartorial and interior decorating ilk. There is precious little mention of her accomplishments, which is to be expected, if we want to be cynical about it. After all, what’s most important about women in this country is their looks, and by extension, how well they notice the way other things look. That is, it is the female gender that is expected to notice appearances.
And the narrative is constructed so that Sergeant Berg conforms to this role beautifully. There is a cut to Berg’s interview, where she is talking about her experience of visiting the White House. The excerpt Kovacik, his NBC producers chose was: “They had chandeliers that were undescribable [sic]. Um, they have carpets to match the ceiling, which, I think is really cool.” Somehow, her noticing the ostentatious interior decor of the White House proves that she’s a special sort of Sergeant because she’s still a woman: she notices appearances! She likes fancy things! But wouldn’t any other non-rich American notice this? Visitors are supposed to be impressed by the way the White House is decorated. Not according to this news story. No, sir. Only women notice these types of things. All this serves to present Sergeant Berg as a somewhat shallow member of the military and an upstanding example of an American woman.
The interview cuts out most of the context that is unrelated to the fashion angle, harping on the idea that this female “decorated sergeant” and veteran of a war was singled out from her peers to attend the State of the Union Address because she appreciated Jill Biden’s shoes. Toward the end, Kovacik describes Berg as “the smiling sergeant with a sense of style,” allowing American society to breathe a sigh of relief. You see, America, no matter how war-worn and accomplished a woman may be, however far she may appear to deviate from the prescribed gender norms of her society, she remains a bastion of ideal femininity.
Narrative is constructed, and the truth is what you discursively make it. Unfortunately, Kovacik and his producers chose a narrative that relied heavily on (arguably negative) gender stereotypes. So thanks for reinforcing the status quo, NBC. Thanks a lot.