This past Friday, an email went around on a listserv of professional women I belong to. Inside, its author expressed reservations over a big, glowing feature story about the Silicon Valley power player in the September issue of the fashion bible. The story, written by Jacob Weisberg, was accompanied by a Mikael Jansson photo of Ms. Mayer arranged artfully on a lawn chair, her head where her feet should be, and the email author was concerned that the image belittled the 38-year-old Yahoo! CEO and former Google executive. (For what it’s worth, I think that Mayer does not look so much passive as she does rigid and brittle, thanks to the unnatural positioning of her body and a set of straps on her Yves Saint Laurent stiletto shoes that resemble restraining devices or monitoring ankle bracelets.)
(PHOTOS: Marissa Mayer’s Executive Style)
Women who hold any position of authority get it coming and going of course, and this particular debate – should business leaders or icons of female strength say yes to fashion shoots – has been taking place for decades. (Some may remember the debates that resulted after a slimmed-down Oprah Winfrey posed for Vogue’s cover in a similar bodily arrangement in 1998.) But amid the discussion of whether or not the famously fashion-fond Marissa Mayer was setting a good example for women in the C-suite — most correspondents on my listserv responded with a resounding yes — there was a nod to the inherent tensions within contemporary femaleness, an acknowledgement that women who take an active interest in fashion and beauty are to both be commended (personal grooming is indicative of self-respect) and humored (personal grooming is superficial).
I think the truth lies somewhere in between, and the tensions around the sorts of subjects over which women are both celebrated and condescended to is perhaps best exemplified by another debate that broke out earlier in the week, in which a baby-faced Silicon Valley entrepreneur named Bryan Goldberg took to the internet to crow about his latest venture, a women’s website named Bustle, which, Goldberg explained, would “transform” women’s publishing by marrying pop culture and politics, feminism and fashion. Goldberg’s willful and arrogant erasure of the many women’s media properties that had already pioneered that space – one of which, Jezebel, I created – was galling enough, but what was perhaps most telling was his chest-thumping defense of the intelligence of female readers and their buying power coupled with his complete lack of curiosity about and condescension towards the actual ways in which they live their lives. (“Women’s publishers have completely lost sight of which decade their readers are living in,” he complained in his post’s 4th paragraph, only to declare, 13 paragraphs later that “…knowing the difference between mascara, concealer, and eye-liner is not my job.”)
Goldberg later apologized but it was hard not to see in the Bustle kerfluffle the ways in which women’s work – and the work of being a woman – are perceived to be at odds. (Author and career coach named Dan Schwabel was quoted on CNBC’s website as saying that Mayer “comes off as if she’s on vacation, she’s relaxing while everyone else is doing work,” a Marie Antoinette-ish invocation that was both a stretch – the photo was not accompanying a profile in the Harvard Business Review – and unfair.) If anything, the debates over both Bustle and Ms. Mayer’s Vogue profile make me yearn for a time when female competence in one area is not undermined by enthusiasm for another, in which women in positions of power are so commonplace that we do not feel compelled to divine motive or find symbolism in every remark they make, corporate policy they enact or fashion spread they pose for.