Saturday, May 27, 2006

The Curious Case of Elizabeth Vargas

Dahlia Lithwick in Slate explains:

Does anyone else out there find it strange that the media is treating Elizabeth Vargas' demotion as ABC's nightly news anchor as a complex triple tragedy of tanking ratings, job loss, and pregnancy?

Here is the Washington Post, describing the replacement of a "pregnant woman with an older, more experienced man." Here is the New York Times describing Vargas feeling " 'an enormous amount of sadness' that a job to which she had aspired for sometime had slipped from her grasp." Everywhere, Vargas' pregnancy, her second, is linked to the end of her career.

But—and here's where the story gets sort of interesting—everyone is spectacularly and explicitly clear that Vargas was not forced from behind the anchor's desk; she asked for it: She explains that it's been a "difficult pregnancy" and the doctors have ordered her to ramp it down. She is quoted as saying that, "Every woman has the right to make that decision for herself and her family without anybody judging it. … It's just what's right for me now. … I would hesitate to draw any large conclusions about working women or working mothers."

Of course that is just what everyone is racing to do. We are desperate to draw large conclusions about working women and mothers—our bookshelves are groaning under the weight of those broad conclusions and sweeping theories. So why not use Vargas as a litmus test for it all?

Do you have to, Dahlia? If Vargas is a litmus test "for it all" then are we all supposed to be just like Elizabeth Vargas? For otherwise this makes no sense at all.

Yet this is what I constantly find: womanhood as some sort of a homogeneous substance, kneaded and rolled out into billions of identical gingerbread women. Whatever one woman does is somehow a sign of what all other women will do. Or rather, whatever one woman fails to do somehow proves the failings of all women. We don't treat men like this.

I don't actually think that Dahlia meant the Vargas case to be taken that way, but I wanted to put in all that gingerbread stuff. What she may have meant by the reference to a litmus test is exactly what I despaired over in the previous paragraph: the idea that all women are somehow part of the same homogeneous woman-substance and that one can stand for all in every way.

It's not too farfetched to suggest that Vargas may make different decisions about her career than other women would were they in the same place. On the other hand, Lithwick may have a point if the Vargas demotion is not really a voluntary one but a carefully staged move by the employer who doesn't care for the idea of any pregnant woman as the sole anchor of a serious news program:

Most of the news accounts go to great pains to explain that in fact all this is about bigger things than Vargas' belly: ABC recently slipped into third place in the evening news ratings; the experiment with Vargas and her co-host, Bob Woodruff, as the younger, hipper anchors failed when Woodruff was injured in Iraq and Vargas was left to carry the show all alone; the networks are all bracing for the September descent of Katie Couric at CBS. All plausible. And yet every account also mentions Vargas' looming pregnancy. If this was just a business decision, why cloud it with a great big dogfight about breeding women in the media?

"Why cloud it with a great big dogfight about breeding women in the media?" Because a business decision which consists of demoting a pregnant woman while keeping her injured cohost's seat open indefinitely might not go down with some of the show's audience. It's much nicer if Vargas demotes herself for all the family values.

I called this post "the curious case" because only those negotiating over the deal know what really happened. Was Vargas demoted or did she ask to be demoted? We don't know. But what we do know is that she is going to be replaced by an older man who will not get pregnant any time soon.