Hasidic newspaper erases the women from that iconic Situation Room photo

You know that instantly famous photo of President Obama and his advisers being briefed on bin Laden’s assassination in the Situation Room? Of course you do. Well, the Brooklyn-based Hasidic newspaper, Der Zeitung, decided to make some, um, alterations to it. Can you spot the difference? Remember the original? Here’s the altered one (via Failed Messiah):

Situation Room photo without the women in Der Zeitung newspaper

Ummmm, where my ladies at? Apparently, Der Zeitung never shows women on its pages because they could be considered “sexually suggestive.” OK, sure, we all know Clinton’s pantsuits are notoriously sexy. But aren’t the editors concerned about all the ladies who get hot and bothered looking at Biden sitting there being all vice-presidential? Jokes aside, Der Zeitung is free to refuse to publish pictures of women. That’s what we like to call really, really sexist, but also fair enough. However, I am pretty sure they are not allowed to erase women from a photograph and pretend they just weren’t there. That’s straight-up rewriting history. And, in addition to seeming just plain wrong to most people, happens to violate both Jewish principles and the terms of use posted by the White House, which stipulate that the image “may not be manipulated in any way.”

Of course, the presence of the women in the original image has sparked some pretty ridiculous debate too. Specifically around Clinton’s expression. So “overcome by emotion” with her hand covering her mouth like that! Um, maybe? But would that gesture seem uniquely emotional if she weren’t one of the only women in the room? I don’t know. But I have a hunch that there wouldn’t be so many articles written analyzing that gesture if it were Biden who was making it. Meanwhile, Clinton herself says she might have just been preventing a cough and the image “may have no great meaning whatsoever.” Are the allergies really to blame or is she just trying to avoid being seen as the “emotional woman” in the room? Again, I do not know. But if it’s the latter, that seems to be a pretty well-grounded concern–and I’m not about to criticize her for it.

Because this is always what happens when you are (one of) the only women in the room (literally in this case!) Your every action, word, expression is subject to gendered scrutiny–and a worried gesture, or a simple cough, can be used to support whatever narrative about women in power others want to write. Clinton’s expression in a photo like this will nearly inevitably be seized upon by some as evidence of the Emotional Female (which, depending on your perspective, is either a flaw or a strength). Unless, of course, the expression were ever-so-slightly different and then it would be evidence of the Cold-Hearted Bitch.

There’s no way to avoid it because the whole stupid, tired discussion has less to do with the expression itself and more to do with the gender of the person wearing it–and it says nothing about anything except how uncomfortable we still are seeing women in positions of power.

Which is why you kinda have to love the blatantly sexist approach Der Zeitung took. While some folks struggled to wrap their heads around the reality that women were in that room, they made it simple and just pretended they weren’t. Problem solved.

Update: Der Zeitung has released a statement apologizing for violating the terms of use of the photo: “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.” You can read the full statement here.

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24 Comments

  1. Posted May 9, 2011 at 11:01 am | Permalink

    Strange, for me the “emotional” gesture that Clinton made showed her as the only person in the room who had any clue what was going on – while the other people felt mostly apathetic, as it they didn’t realise how huge this moment in history was. As far as I’m concerned, the fact that she got a bit emotional makes her more qualified than everyone else.
    But I guess the cough story is way more likely than everything I’ve been over-reading in this photo :)

  2. Posted May 9, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    I thought she looked human, for lack of a better word. Everyone’s trying to be stoic and calculating. Obama looks a little angry, somehow.

  3. Posted May 9, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

    Extremely well put analysis of the issue. Couldn’t agree more.

  4. Posted May 9, 2011 at 12:03 pm | Permalink

    This has happened in the past, too. At least two Israeli newspapers removed women from a photo of the Israeli cabinet (one through clone stamping or some similar photoshop technique and the other by simply blacking them out) back in 09, I think, and the removal of these cabinet ministers and Secretary of State Clinton are only the most notable examples of this kind of effacement.

    Really solid, too, that you point out that the more subtle erasure of Clinton’s role in cabinet proceedings via discussions of her covering her mouth come from the same place as these erasures. Another point which lends itself to your argument is that the photo was taken at least a full hour or two before the raid actually commenced, given that the live feed to Washington was down during the most active part of the operation.

    Great article, Maya!

  5. Posted May 9, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink

    As a Jew, this posting makes me uncomfortable. The strictest Orthodox Jews, a tiny minority of Jews worldwide, observe extremely strict modesty laws where they are supposed to avert their eyes if they even see a woman that is not their wife or immediate family member. I think a more pertinent question to ask is whether Clinton’s name was omitted from the article.

    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink

      Would you have the same reaction if we were discussing a Muslim publication in the United States? The same modesty laws apply…Just because something makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed. A lot of topics make me uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean we should just overlook them.

      I think the point about the article mentioning the women is a good one. While I think the way they doctored the photo is unethical (and in violation of White House rules), if they had simply left the silhouettes of where the women were, along with their names and titles, that would have been fine (because I think they should be able to publish what they want). My guess is the article doesn’t mention them, which is why omitting them from the picture is particularly poignant – it’s clearly not JUST about modesty.

      You can’t rewrite history because you take issue with half the world’s population, whatever your reasons – religious, cultural, etc – and not expect a reaction.

  6. z
    Posted May 9, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    I’m sure this is not going to be a popular comment, but besides having violated the terms of use for the photograph I don’t think that the newspaper did anything necessarily wrong. I believe religious based organizations have the right to practice their own religion within the bounds or their “space” (where I define space as their place of worship, their independently funded school, etc.). This newspaper is not secularly owned and should not be told they must comply with expecations that counter their religious beliefs (the link to an article where one write mentions that he has previously argued that censorship is not in line with Jewish principles is not an accurate representation of what those of the Hasidic Jewish faith believe). If they cannot express and parctice their religion as they see fit (without overt harm to others) in their own space, where can they? If they were trying to push for other news sources to follow their guidelines I would be against it, but this is a newspaper that they create. I may not agree with the guidelines of Hasidic Judaisim, but that’s why I don’t practice the religion. Those who ascribe to the faith should be allowed to do so in their own space without us going into their space and condemning them for it.

    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 3:36 pm | Permalink

      I agree with you….I don’t like what they did, and I think there should have been silhouettes put in their place to at least acknowledge the women’s presence, but I am not of the mind of censoring or regulating free speech.

    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 3:46 pm | Permalink

      Why? Because it is a blatant disregard for FACT.

      • Posted May 9, 2011 at 4:13 pm | Permalink

        Because unless you want to live in a fascist state, I do not believe that people (read not governments or new sources like FOX, etc) should be censored because they are not reporting facts.

        I am not saying it is right, and I personally believe that there should be acknowledgment of the women somewhere, but I don’t think censorship is the answer here. What law would you cite that would force the newspaper to publish the photos?

        I am much more concerned with Texas rewriting history in the schoolbooks that will be taught in Texas public schools. That is a much bigger issue for me.

        And while I think there should be consequences for violating the White House rules, and aside from being totally unethical, I don’t think they shouldn’t have the right to publish the photo.

        • Posted May 9, 2011 at 9:16 pm | Permalink

          Free speech definitely and clearly protects them from any legal intervention as they print whatever they want. I think nobody will disagree with you on that one.

          (There is the minor point that the distribution license for the photograph did not permit it to be altered, which they are in violation of, but it would be just as much an infraction if I crudely photoshopped Big Bird into the photo and published that.)

          However, the fact that they are allowed to publish whatever they want, and that the government will not intefere, does not mean that we should not in turn publish what we want condemning or disagreeing with their actions and statements. “The best remedy for bad speech is more speech.”

      • z
        Posted May 9, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink

        Is it? I’m still unable to find an English translation of the photo caption and article. Do we actually know that the didn’t acknowledge editing out the women? I really would like to see a translation. If they acknowledge it, is it really disregarding the facts? Or is it just producing a newspaper that males in their community can read without violating their religion and standards for modesty?

      • Posted May 10, 2011 at 3:58 pm | Permalink

        Not only is it lying to its readers, but my understanding is that Hasidic law prohibits its followers from reading non-Hasidic news sources that could correct this lie. Basically, it’s a downright creepy example of a religion controlling its followers’ access to information about the world around them…

    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 11:40 pm | Permalink

      Since there’s started to be some discussion of free speech and censorship, I just want to be clear that I certainly don’t think Der Zeitung should be forced to show pictures of women–in this case or any other. (As I wrote in the OP, “Der Zeitung is free to refuse to publish pictures of women.”) I don’t think that’s really in dispute here at all? I do think that altering the image, without acknowledging they did so that it gives the impression that an event happened in a different way than it actually did, is, at minimum, bad journalism and, I believe, pretty unethical. As other commenters have suggested, a simple disclaimer would have probably sufficed.

      (Of course, there’s also the separate question of whether their policy of banning photos of women in general is a sexist double standard. I would argue yes.)

      And it seems Der Zeitung has acknowledged that they violated the terms of use for distribution of the photo at least. This afternoon, they released a statement saying they’d missed the fine print and apologized for editing the photo. They also offered support for Hillary Clinton and all government officials and said that the policy of not publishing pictures of women “in no way relegates them to a lower status.” The statement can be found here.

      • z
        Posted May 9, 2011 at 11:50 pm | Permalink

        Thank you for posting the reply.

        I’m still looking for a translation of the article. Do you have one? I’m really interested to see what the caption of the photo read, or if anywhere in the article it was mentioned that the two women had been present (or were edited out).

  7. Posted May 9, 2011 at 2:35 pm | Permalink

    Why must they be erased? Is it forbidden to see images women you’re not related to or is it forbidden that women exist outside of domestic situations? Why not replace Clinton’s and Tomason’s images with an outline or with a generic, gender neutral figure? I don’t understand why they must be removed, as though they don’t exist.

  8. Posted May 9, 2011 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    thanks for the article.

    some commenters have expressed the idea that religious organizations should be exempt from our criticism, and/or ‘allowed’ to do what they want.

    while i think this is a popular idea among many people in the U.S. (perhaps stemming from the supposed separation of church and state) i don’t think i can agree. all areas of society, culture, belief, norms, practices, rhetoric, history and so on create our realities. just because it is religious doesn’t mean it should beyond our commentary or activism.

    i am growing tired of the sanctity that many give to religious organizations. i hope that the religious community i connect with is not beyond your critique–it’s certainly not beyond mine.

    if it were not a religious paper how would you feel? why is it different? ideologies are all rooted somewhere, and just because an ideology includes a deity doesn’t place it out of bounds.

    the U.S. includes many many religious people, institutions and practices, if we can’t comment, critique or even condemn these then we’re missing much of the possibilities for liberation and transformations of our culture.

    for me the practice of erasing women from history whether done by a Hasidic newspaper or by a Texas school board maintains the limited visibility of women and our contributions. both these instances are f-cked up even though they’re coming from different places.

    does anyone know of Hasidic or other Jewish women who are fighting this practice?

    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 4:15 pm | Permalink

      I say condemn away….criticize away…I don’t think anyone is saying there isn’t room for that here, because there definitely is and it should be done. I guess my overly analytical/legal mind is asking, “on what legal grounds should this newspaper be forced to publish the photos of the women?” Is this a road we want to go down…and what makes this instance different than the Texas school board case (minus some obvious differences), etc?

      • Posted May 9, 2011 at 8:43 pm | Permalink

        They are not forced to publish anything. If the photo is offensive to them or their viewers because there’s a woman in it, then they don’t publish it. But they can’t photoshop away parts of a photo they don’t like and in the process change the meaning of it. Especially if it goes against the terms of use of the White House. *That* is censorship, something you are rightly against.

    • Posted May 9, 2011 at 8:55 pm | Permalink

      You make a lot of good points. of course no one is exempt from criticism, especially extremists, even familiar practices that I took for granted before I learned to question them. what interested me was your final point asking whether there are Hasidic women fighting the modesty laws. A google search confirmed my idea that ultra-Orthodox Jewish women who are uncomfortable with their status choose to identify with another, less traditional sect of Judaism or leave Judaism altogether.

      I found this powerful blog post by an ex-Hasid describing the oppressive realities of being a young woman in that environment. It makes for a really interesting (and disturbing) reading: http://hasidic-feminist.blogspot.com/2010/08/i-am-satmar.html

  9. Posted May 9, 2011 at 9:19 pm | Permalink

    I liked the comment made on another message board I follow, which was “kind of makes you wonder what they would have done if Ms. Clinton had become president.” The Chief Justice administering the oath of office to an empty patch of air was suggested.

  10. Posted May 10, 2011 at 5:01 pm | Permalink

    Some much-needed balance in the form of a photoshop with the men removed.

  11. Posted May 11, 2011 at 6:30 am | Permalink

    Latin transliteration of the newspaper’s Yiddish title is “Di Tzeitung” (German, Die Zeitung). The article “der” must have been copied by someone who did not understand Yiddish. It is in the wrong case. Naming the newspaper “Der Zeitung” is like saying, “Me am going to the store.” The nominative feminine article is “di.” “Der” could be genitive or dative.

  12. Posted May 13, 2011 at 8:58 pm | Permalink

    It’s so funny to me how people are ridiculing the picture just because Hilary Clinton has her hand over her mouth. And just what the heck does that prove?! Like you said, she could have been doing it just to cover her mouth from either sneezing, about to cough, it could have been ANYTHING. Not only that but Hilary was literally the ONLY person in that picture that showed any kind of “emotion”. If you look at the picture closely, you would see that the other women actually have the exact same expression as the other men. The whole thing is just funny to me that just because ONE woman in the picture dares to show any feeling, they think we are all like that, when they fail to recognize that there are OTHER women in the photo and they also have very stoic expressions.

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