There’s been no shortage of reporting on Der Tzeitung‘s removing Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from this photo of the Situation Room. In contrast, there’s been too little commentary on the subject. Writing for Jezebel, Irin Carmon published this briefing of the now iconic airbrush stroke, which mostly republishes Der Tzeitung‘s explanation of its decision. This is what Der Tzeitung had to say:
Our photo editor realized the significance of this historic moment, and published the picture, but in his haste he did not read the “fine print” that accompanied the picture, forbidding any changes. We should not have published the altered picture, and we have conveyed our regrets and apologies to the White House and to the State Department.
The allegations that religious Jews denigrate women or do not respect women in public office, is a malicious slander and libel. The current Secretary of State, the Honorable Hillary R. Clinton, was a Senator representing New York State with great distinction 8 years. She won overwhelming majorities in the Orthodox Jewish communities in her initial campaign in ’00, and when she was re-elected in ’06, because the religious community appreciated her unique capabilities and compassion to all communities. The Jewish religion does not allow for discrimination based on gender, race, etc. We respect all government officials. We even have special prayers for the welfare of our Government and the government leaders, and there is no mention of gender in such prayers.
In accord with our religious beliefs, we do not publish photos of women, which in no way relegates them to a lower status. Publishing a newspaper is a big responsibility, and our policies are guided by a Rabbinical Board. Because of laws of modesty, we are not allowed to publish pictures of women, and we regret if this gives an impression of disparaging to women, which is certainly never our intention. We apologize if this was seen as offensive.
Carmon’s piece for Jezebel tacks on to this republished statement the concluding note that it is common for ultra-orthodox Jewish newspapers to refrain from publishing images of women. That’s it. No commentary, and not even a hint of snark. I’d like to hear more from Jezebel, who I’ve come to know as animated and opinionated, at least in tone. Restraint in this context does not correlate with respect, but rather an unwillingness to exchange real ideas.
One view, offered by a friend, was to ask why Clinton was not only removed (blacked out), but was filled in again to look like background. My friend wanted to know: “What part of this was caused by Photoshop’s incredible capabilities making something like this possible (obviously, the published photo is more attractive than if there was a big black hole where Hillary was sitting) and what part was caused by ingrained, potentially thoughtless sexism?” He went on to say “I think Der Tzeitung needs a new policy on Photoshopping.”
I think that the politics of shopping for the right image of women in reality is a slippery topic that for some strange reason, only gets a ton of attention when bad photoshopping happens or when a religious publication makes a giant mistake in public opinion. And yet, choices are made every day on how women are portrayed in the media. Choices that still add to the weight of sexism and deserve a willingness to discuss. For instance, how does the alteration of women’s images, justified in part by the availability of the technology to do so, not put in place a hierarchy that values software more than women?
And does anyone have anything to say about the other woman photoshopped out of the Der Tzeitung version of the Situation Room that day? Issues of power cannot be sidestepped no matter what particular aspect of this debate is emphasized. The choices of the kind of alterations and to whom they are done are all judgments on relative importance, as are the reactions to these decisions. Two women were removed from a photograph, one with more power than the other, so her case is more damning (which may be why Der Tzeitung addressed her specifically in their explanatory statement). And yet the ease with which both are erased indicates a shared disadvantage.
In order to address the act as motivated by a particular set of values, as Der Tzeitung suggests it is, one must acknowledge that two women were removed and effort was made to ensure it looked like they were not there in the first place. The religious affiliation of the publication does not preclude serious commentary on its execution of a sexist act. Furthermore, acknowledging sexism is not the equivalent of uttering a dangerous slander. It’s a valuable way of expressing dissent with another’s standpoint. I’d like to remind Der Tzeitung that by removing a woman so effectively from a historical image, they are not just obeying an interpretation of religious code, but risking the very effective erasure of women from history. I’d also like to remind others that there isn’t a photoshopping technique for removing one’s self from a public conversation in which one – as woman, citizen and political and social subject – is implicated. Opting out is the equivalent of drawing a black hole where one should have been, and making a clear statement about the kind of agency one wishes to take.