Let’s get visual?

Pink tennis shoes. Pink stilettos. Purse boys. Pantsuit aficionados.

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.

Michelle Obama at 2012 DNCRather, 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?

2012 Republican presidential candidates

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.

Recent Ph.D. grad of the Department of Communication at the University of Washington. I am currently an adjunct in the Communication Department at Seattle University, and in the fall of 2014 I start as an Asst. Prof. at the University of Oklahoma. My main focus is political communication, gender, and news media. My dissertation examined how women and men political candidates communicate different presentations of self via their Twitter feeds depending on the sex of their opponent, and what the effects are of gendered communication on candidate evaluation.

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Posted in gender, politics
5 comments on “Let’s get visual?
  1. messayessay says:

    The pattern of noticing female candidates clothing choices and appearances over men’s probably comes down to women judging their peers more then men would criticize each other for their suit choices. I think the problem is if it becomes a distraction. However, those likely to enter a discussion on Michelle Bachman’s attire are probably less focussed on politics anyway.

    • It would be interesting to see whether men or women are the source of more appearance coverage, and who that coverage is directed at, men or women candidates.

  2. Another thought jumped out at me in that photo of Bachmann with all the male candidates running for president: she looks unique because she’s the only woman. Had there been 3 women in that line up not doubt her clothes would have seemed to standout less. This sort of why the concept of “men as standard, women as abnormal” is created just by the numbers. No individual woman politician’s “look” would seem to stand out so much if she was joined by more women. (I was thinking of the group photo of all the women in Congress. More colorful than the men’s clothes, but not really more colorful than each other’s.) They look “special” and “different than the norm” only if we conceive as men’s looks as the base standard, not women’s. IIf more women are in Congress/Presidential politics then difference between their clothes & the men’s might still be visually obvious, but if the balance was towards more women then men, wouldn’t the dark suits be the stands outs, not the women in colored pants suits?

    • It’s true, when you see a picture of all the women together from a certain year of Congress, none of them usually stand out in the same way they do when scattered amongst men. Camera pans at State of the Union addresses really highlight this as well — dots of color in a sea of black and dark gray.

  3. […] -Let’s get visual? On Pink tennis shoes. Pink stilettos. Purse boys. Pantsuit aficionados. (by Lindsey Meeks) […]

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