Excerpted from MW June 2000

 

Serious women don’t wear tailored pants. Serious men do, though. In fact, serious men can wear anything and still be considered thorough professionals, dedicated to their jobs and suitable for the next round of corporate privileges.

But serious thinking women? They can’t wear wrap-around skirts. Nor can they waft with Dune. Oh no. They have to be draped tightly in crushed handloom, encase cracked feet in frayed kolhapuris, loudly reveal an ostentatious obsession with the underprivileged or with feminist theory, and then, and only then, might they be taken seriously and designated to be capable of thought.

My poor misunderstood friend, a woman of ferocious intelligence, robust character and deep insights into things, secured a PhD in Comparative Societies, lost a good amount of weight, did her hair up nicely and applied for a job in a newspaper. “Why don’t you do something nice,” smiled the editor, looking her up and down. “Something really nice.” “Yes,” she beamed. “I’d love to. You see, social change is one of my…” “Fashion,” he said firmly. “It’s the big thing now. You’ll do fashion.” Intelligent? She couldn’t be. Intelligent women should aspire to a decent state of ugliness. They must be sexually neutral or sexually subordinate. “All you well-dressed women,” fulminated a senior editor to another harried journalist friend, “you don’t take your work seriously. You haven’t struggled.”

Serious women must not — shock, horror — aspire to good looks. Nor, on the flip side, can good-looking women possess an education or even — lord love us — a vocabulary. If either do, they are a threat not only to their colleagues and bosses but to the entire social order itself. The assumption always being that well turned out women are elite women, and elite women are of course dumb women, because all they’ve done all their life is eaten out of silver spoons and been spared the opportunity to ‘struggle’ and ‘sweat’. By this logic, of course, only sharecroppers should be writing editorials. I must clarify that I speak for the journalistic profession, which some might argue is a backward sector of the economy. But my corporate and lawyer friends tell me that even in the boardroom and legal power gatherings, a beautiful woman has far less chance of being taken seriously than a woman not so. You’re great for a joke. Fun for a dinner party. Super for an affair. But for a promotion? Hmm.

Men can be as fashionconscious as they want. The handsome, sharp dresser who fells the competitor and his secretary is the Raymond pin-up, the good-lookin’, cruisin’, child-lovin’, millionmakin’, beer-drinkin’, ideal man. Imagine a lovely woman with a lovely face being an authority on jurisprudence? Imagine a pretty girl with a great figure being able to write like a dream? Kill her! She’s a fake! Poor Arundhati Roy. No wonder the amount of hate that we regularly direct at her is far in excess of the usual amount faced by successful people. We might have liked her a little more if she were fat and didn’t look so good. We’re comforted by fat. A fat woman is a responsible woman. A fat woman is mother, diligent, capable of handling things. Thin women are, by definition, flimsy, non-serious, simply unfit for the serious business of business, for the grave issues of the day, for exclusively male conclaves.

Don’t get me wrong, now. I’m not arguing for flooding the workplace with sex symbols. Oh no. That would be a tactical disaster. What better opportunity to nullify female competition than with a single, dismissive hard-on? In any case, give me demure, small-nailed chic any day than big-haired, bosomflashing, scarlet fingernails. And most corporates rightly insist on a dress code so that both men and women play down their sexuality and don’t let hormones get in the way of word processing.

But I would argue that if a woman is a decent professional, the way she dresses at work or at parties shouldn’t matter, as long as her clothes don’t attract an inconvenient amount of interest which, I believe, no genuinely clever woman would want anyway.

Everybody has a right to be judged ‘serious’ or ‘nonserious’ not by how they look and what they wear, but by their power of expression and the quality of their work. Serious women have a right to look good, to buy themselves a nice pair of jeans if they wish to, to a sense of humour, a right to be irreverent.