Friday, October 31, 2008

In Search of a Pretty President? Study Examines Impact of Gender and Appearance on Women Candidates

In a prior blog entry, I chastised my liberal colleagues for making a fuss over Sarah Palin's shopping spree for campaign attire. Focusing on her clothing and related expenses singled her out as a female candidate. The media have not similarly obsessed over the fashion of male candidates, and the public does not know or seemingly wish to know how much their suits and shoes cost.

By contrast, Hillary Clinton's pantsuits became a national obsession during the Democratic primaries. Clinton's treatment provides a context for evaluating public discourse over Palin's appearance. My argument that media treatment of her Palin's clothes stemmed from gender bias also seemed logical in light of the astronomical cost of this election. This is the most expensive presidential election in history. Although the candidates have spent over $2.5 billion, Palin's $150,000 fashion allotment raised eyebrows. But the extraordinary fundraising and spending by Obama's campaign has only thrilled the media.

Today, the Associated Press reports the findings of a study by Joan Chiao -- a psychologist at Northwestern University -- which confirms the vulnerability of women politicians to disparate treatment related to their appearance. Specifically, the study finds that voters desire "competent" male candidates, but they want "competent" and "attractive" female candidates. Although many women in the study also preferred male candidates they deemed "approachable," both men and women fixated on women's (but not men's) outward appearance in assessing their fitness for office.

Because only college students participated in the study, it is unclear whether the results would vary with age or education levels. But the study lends credibility to the notion that both Palin and Clinton have experienced gender bias in their respective campaigns.

The study could also support an argument I made in response to a reader who discounted sexism against Palin. The reader discounted the operation of sexism against Palin, by noting that John Edwards received similar treatment when he sported a costly, stylish haircut. I argued then -- and I reiterate now, in light of the study -- that Edwards probably breached gender expectations by excessively focusing on his appearance. Whereas a woman would probably receive criticism for not getting a stylish haircut, Edwards was punished for doing so. His metrosexual moment disrupted gender norms. With Palin, however, people exploited gender norms about women's appearance, which probably led the Republicans to "dress up" Palin in the first place, to her detriment. Although society expects women to pay more attention to style than men, some people sought to punish Palin for doing so.

I would also argue that a similar perverse pattern happened with Clinton. Women of her generation had to prove that they were as "tough" as men to make it in professional life. During the primaries, her harshest critics called her tough and cold, common stereotypes used to challenge women who occupy or who seek positions of authority.

1 comment:

Vickie Pynchon said...

Throughout a 25-year legal career, I've found plenty of benefit in being female and leveraging low expectations AND societal prejudices to my client's benefit. It's good for us to constantly keep in mind the pervasive biases we'd all prefer to put behind us. Then again, it's also good to value what we "get" as women that our male colleagues lack -- a longer life to start with; better social networks; deeper friendships; a greater ability to express our "male" side than men have to express their female side and many other tangible and intangible benefits from being female in western society. Given that power, property and prestige (the areas in which men exceed us) are the greatest barriers to spiritual well-being, in an imperfect world, I'd choose being a woman again and again and again. But really, thanks for keeping up the good fight on this.

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