These phrases perhaps appear to be more at home with a style section on the latest fashion trends, but recently they have found their way into countless news articles, blog posts, and tweets about women politicians.
In the midst of this discussion, recent research has come out of two camps regarding the effects of appearance coverage on voters’ assessments of politicians. Research concerning appearance is certainly not new. What seems to be drumming things up is that the two studies conflict. Jennifer Lawless of American University and Danny Hayes of George Washington University found that appearance coverage does not differentially affect women more than men. In other words, when participants read articles containing appearance coverage there were virtually no differences between men and women’s favorability ratings. Name It. Change It. came out with a study that showed that appearance coverage did hurt women’s electability. They did not include male candidates in their study, but they did have control groups, so they were able to determine the differences in effects between the presence and absence of appearance coverage.
That the studies conflict is nothing new in research. It happens often. Research is, after all, an iterative process. No one study is the end all, be all of results. Rather, we need to conduct multiple studies on various participants to start to assemble and recognize consistent patterns.
Molly Ball of The Atlantic published an article today that summarized the two studies, and also commented on her opinion regarding news coverage of women’s appearance. Her take on the matter is summed up in the title of the article: No, It’s Not Sexist to Describe Women Politicians’ Clothes.
Ball’s article, as well as the debate surrounding the two studies, brought up two thoughts for me. Neither of these thoughts were, “Lawless and Hayes are right, or Name It. Change It. is right.” I say this for two reasons. First, as I said before, research is iterative. It is too soon to support some definitive stance on the matter. Second, I don’t have access to Lawless and Hayes’s research so I can’t assess the methodology or complete results, and thus make a full comparison to the Name It. Change It. study.
Rather, the first thought was a memory from the 2012 DNC. Specifically, it was about Michelle Obama’s DNC speech. There was a fair amount of anticipation and speculation around it. Reports saying she wrote it herself, and other debate about how pivotal it was for her to strike the right tone and energy for her husband. One of the things I remember most about this speech was viewers’ reaction. Not to the content, but to her appearance. Some of my female friends admitted, almost sheepishly, to me that their first thought when Michelle Obama stepped out on the stage was, “Oh, I love her dress!” There was palpable guilt in their admittance that they noticed her dress or shoes. If was as if some cardinal sin had been committed that set women back in some way.
I don’t think people should feel such guilt around a first impression.
What is your first impression when you see the photo below?
Is it something along the lines that in this photo of 2012 Republican presidential candidates that Michele Bachmann stands out? Perhaps it is because she is the only woman on the stage. Maybe it is because in a string of dark suits, she is the only one wearing a light color suit.
Now take the picture below. What is your first impression?
You probably notice that one of these things is not like the others. The difference is that you probably don’t feel any guilt in noticing this difference.
This is how most brains work. They look for patterns; they categorize and organize information to make sense of it. As such, I don’t have a problem with people noticing someone’s appearance.
The bigger issue for me is when appearance is the story, when the focus on appearance seems to eclipse everything else.
For example, the Washington Post published an entire article about White House counsel Kathryn Ruemmler’s shoes, and no, it was not in the style section. After reading the article I know nothing about this woman in any professional capacity, only about her love of shoes.
The other thought I had while reading Ball’s article was regarding her point on the idea of clothing and appearance being strategic, and how commenting on it or critiquing it in a news article is similar to critiquing other strategic decisions by politicians. I think there is room for looking at appearance coverage via this perspective.
I have no doubt that appearance is a strategic decision by politicians. Virtually everything politicians do is a performance of how they want to be perceived. During the 2012 general election, there was talk about how Mitt Romney would slightly dishevel his hair, roll up his sleeves, and wear slightly frayed jeans as an attempt to make himself seem more relatable, more of the every man instead of the guy with a car elevator.
This type of critique becomes part of the story, not the whole story, about a candidates’ strategy for office. This type of appearance coverage is used as a piece of evidence building toward a larger argument. As such, it fits in with analyzing a candidate’s stump speeches for shifts in rhetorical appeals, looking at who they campaign with and their campaign surrogates, evaluating their campaign stop decisions, etc. Everything is a performance and everything is strategic. So to look at appearance as a site of performance and critique is not inherently wrong or sexist.
But to focus on it more for women than men, is problematic. And research examining the 2008 elections did find that Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton were subjected to more appearance coverage than men (e.g., Conners, 2009; Heldman, Oliver, and Conroy, 2009; Wasburn and Wasburn, 2011).
And to make appearance the whole story and not just part of a wider assessment of a candidate’s strategy, or to use it as a baseless teardown of a candidate is also problematic and happens all too often. Something tells me that coverage of Clinton’s tangerine pantsuit was not part of a hard-nosed discussion about candidate strategy.