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Panel of professionals discuss feminist themes and 'Legally Blonde' musical

By Kathleen McWilliams
On April 2, 2014

Double standards, expectations of female fashion and sex appeal in the work place were the topics of conversation at a Connecticut Repertory Theater panel discussion Wednesday afternoon.
The panel brought together professionals in the field of business, law and theater, as well as university employees to examine the expectations on women when it comes to dressing for a career.
"Can women dress femininely and still be taken seriously?" moderator of the panel and assistant professor in the Dramatic Arts Department Lindsay Cummings said.
The discussion, entitled "From Power Suits to Power Pink," utilized the movie-turned-musical "Legally Blonde" as the springboard for discussion points. The CRT is performing the show this spring and Cummings said that, as the person responsible for community outreach and involvement, she felt that the musical highlighted many issues women face in the workplace today.
"In the musical version Elle Woods first tries to emulate the appearance of her Harvard colleagues. She wears a navy blue suit and she thinks about dying her hair brown. But, ultimately, she succeeds when she is true to herself," Cummings said.
Cummings, as she introduced the panel, noted that many people view "Legally Blonde" as a feel good feminist film, where a young female overcomes stereotypes and succeeds. However, Cummings cautioned the audience about oversimplifying the issue.
"How good should we feel about this? Is it [the film] a celebration or rather a critique of women?" Cummings said.
Cummings then addressed questions to the six person panel, comprised of Lucy Gilson, associate professor and director of Geon Auriemma Leadership conference with the School of Business; Susan Schmeiser, a law professor at UConn School of Law; Nancy Bilmes, director of the Career Development Center; Mikala Francini, an English and Drama student and dramaturge for the production; and Courtney Hammond, an actress who is appearing as Elle Woods in UConn's production.
Gilson delineated the progression of professional dress for women over the past hundred years, noting how styles of dress have dramatically changed from extremely functional to more masculine, in order to fit more competitive work environments. She also discussed how the average woman spends 27 minutes on self-grooming before work.
"That's ten full days a year that lack productivity," Gilson said, noting that the statistic has an inverse relationship with the amount women get paid. She also spoke to the fact that employers-men or women-judge women instantaneously on their attire and appearance.
"What you wear, particularly as a woman, is the first impression you can give," Gilson said.
This form of discrimination and sex-stereotyping, Schmeiser said, is difficult to legislate. Schmeiser reminded the audience of the case in Reno, Nevada where a woman sued the bar she worked at for stipulating that women would need to have styled hair and makeup done for every shift, while men had next to no appearance requirements.
"The law, while it has lots of things to say on sexuality, has not intervened in this subject," Schmeiser said.
Bilsen brought up the opposite issues that some women have, which is juggling the expectation of looking "sexy," while also looking professional. In many places of work, Bilsen said, women are chastised for showing cleavage or bare legs, while still being encouraged to wear makeup. She said that popular culture's image of women in the workforce often has a negative effect on women's identities in the workplace, and can make the decision to wear an outfit with or without personality challenging.
"These images of women in pop culture clash with the expectations of conservatism," Cummings added.
Hammond weighed in on the subject of appearance in the acting industry, a profession where appearance is often noted to be everything.
"There is a constant juggling of how much of myself I put into the outfit? How much of my character do I put in?" Hammond said.
In regards to the play, Francini said that the musical points out some obvious flaws in the way women are expected to dress.
"There is a scene where Elle gets tricked into going to a law school party in a playboy bunny costume. At first it's awful, but then she puts on a pair of glasses and says she's Gloria Steinem from her manifesto "I Am a Playboy Bunny," Francini said. "It's funny to look at how when she is compared to an icon it's okay, but when she's just being herself, it's not okay."

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