Another addition to Clinton’s to-do list for 2016: Get Personal

A recent Politico article set up a to-do, and to-don’t, list for Hillary Clinton that ranged from “Don’t turn into Al Gore” to “Clean up the foundation mud-slinging.”

The item that grabbed my attention was “Do more with Twitter…please.” Perhaps it was the begging tone that caught my attention, or perhaps is was that I study how women candidates can effectively use Twitter to create online personas. I’ll let you decide.

Either way, this to-do item and its impact on the other items is crucial for Clinton as she continues to ponder her 2016 intentions.

The article points out that Twitter is about conversation, and Clinton’s tweets are often more asymmetrical and “have at times seemed tone-deaf, turning a larger story into something about the Secretary.”

After looking over her tweets, I don’t think the problem is that she focuses too much attention on herself. Rather, I think she 1. Needs to actually focus on herself more, and 2. Needs to draw that attention in a different way.

What I mean by this is that I think Clinton needs to repackage her tweet content in a more personalizing way. Personalization can mean revealing some aspect of your personal identity or connecting some aspect of the tweet to your life, lived experiences, etc. But the key to making that connection effective is to go authentically personal, or at least to appear that way. Personalization via biting humor or sarcasm doesn’t hit the right note. And unfortunately, Clinton’s latest tweets have either been devoid of personalization, or, if personalized, they have taken on too much of a sarcastic tone.

This misconnect is particularly damaging when taken into context with another to-do item from the article: “Don’t turn into Mitt Romney.”

Romney constantly struggled with trying to connect, to appear authentic, to display some empathy. The idea that he was essentially a rich kid who couldn’t relate was part and parcel of his undoing. And if Clinton thinks that this current form of personalization is connecting with people, it will be her undoing as well.

The public understands that all politicians’ communication is deeply strategic (okay, so maybe Bqhatevwr wasn’t quite as strategic). However, we are still willing to suspend some belief every now and then because we crave seeing the seemingly more human side of a politician. As humans, we seek that kind of connection, from each other, and from our politicians.

Mitt and Ann RomneyWhen Mitt posted a photo with Ann in the kitchen soon after the 2012 election, with his typically perfectly quaffed hair mussed a bit, in a loving embrace from his wife, many wished that this version of Mitt had made an appearance during the campaign. This was a person we could connect with.

That is kind of connection we want from Clinton. And at times, we get it. Yes, some revolted when pictures and video surfaced of Clinton dancing on some of her SOS trips. But for some, it was a more joyful, playful side of Clinton. It was a public moment, but it felt more personal.

And her current Twitter feed lacks that loving feeling.

At the time of this post, she has 52 tweets spread out over several months. Some say, including discussion in the Politico article, that she is still getting her sea legs on Twitter, and that this ramping up period is to blame for the lack of connection. But it seems like she was doing better, regarding personalization, when she started than she is now.

When you look at tweets within the last 100+ days, talk of issues ramps up, activity tweets increase, e.g., going to this banquet, talking at this event, etc., and any humor that is present is self-deprecating or has a bite to it.

It is actually her early tweets from the first 100+ days of being on Twitter that seem to ring more authentic and showcase more humanizing humor.

Hillary and Chelsea ClintonShe posts selfies with her daughter (The fact that she used the word “selfies” somewhat hurts my soul, but the awkward camera angle somehow makes up for it):

She flashes some humor and wishes the royal family congratulations:

She actually engages in an @reply (very rare for her) and mentions that she watches Downton Abbey:

Hillary Clinton

She even jokes about HP:

I wonder if the shift from the first 100 days to the more recent 100 days is because she thinks this is how politicians should tweet.

And my response would be no, it’s not.

Research has shown that personalization is beneficial to candidates. My own research has reinforced this previous work, and has shown that personalization abets candidates, regardless of whether they are Republicans or Democrats, or women or men. In particular, I found that when the public is exposed to personalized versus depersonalized campaign tweets, they believe the personalizing candidate is more competent at handling issues, more likely to embody desirable character traits, and they express higher vote intention for the candidate. Further, I find that personalizing candidates trigger a greater sense of social presence and parasocial interaction. Social presence is the extent to which virtual or mediated communication simulates face-to-face interactions, and parasocial interaction a one-way, nonreciprocal, pseudo relationship the audience forms with a mediated personality, often called “intimacy at a distance.” The heightened presence of both of these factors, and their  ability to “warm up” mediated spaces, is critical as retail politics gives way to more digital campaigning, a style of campaigning that is especially present at the presidential level.

Therefore Clinton’s shift away from personalization toward more issues and more biting humor is not one I would recommend. I recommend going back to that more humanzing humor and presenting her stance on issues, whenever possible, in a more personalizing style. After all, the entrance of greater issue discussion does not have to mean the exit of personalization. Rather, as my work has shown, politicians can embrace personalization and issues at the same time and be successful. Clinton actually demonstrates this combination. In those first 100 days, Clinton took this approach and tweeted, “As a mom, I made reading to @ChelseaClinton a priority every night. New studies show us the importance of words: .” The link takes you to a page discussing the importance of early childhood education and the Clinton Foundation’s Too Small To Fail initiative.

Clinton had the right idea in the beginning regarding how to infuse a more personal quality to her tweets, and she should go back to it because every time she tweets, her million plus followers heavily retweet it. Which means that every tweet is a discreet display of her building her self-presentation, and thus every tweet matters, and I argue it matters a lot. And not just because she is a woman or because she has been cast as too cold or hawkish in the past, but because personalization seems to benefit candidates in a multitude of ways, all which you need if you are seeking to become president.

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Posted in digital media, politics

Keeping it in the family: Political dynasty or political legacy?

Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer is seen at the Montana State Capitol in Helena

Former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer

Former Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer in an interview with RealClearPolitics discussed the prospect of Hillary Clinton running for the presidency, and said that it is “time for a woman president.” Schweitzer, who is rumored to be considering a run for the presidency, then backtracked and added, “Isn’t there somebody other than a Bush or a Clinton who can be president in these modern times? Isn’t there hope for somebody who’s running a business or who has served overseas or comes from a different occupation to become president? Are we now in the era of royalty again?”

Royalty suggests that candidates are winning because of blood ties — because they are the heir apparent to the throne — not because of merit. In Clinton’s case, it isn’t quite family lineage as much as it is her last name.

Family ties are, of course, abundant in politics.

Only 44 men in the U.S. have ever held the presidential office, yet even among this small group we still have to ask: Which Adams? Which Roosevelt? Which Bush? And as you travel down the electoral ladder, the number of connections grows.

Sometimes these family connections spark a sentimental note of tradition. Sometimes they make you feel like you are Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, and it seems like the loop never ends. Sometimes it suggests what might have been — think JFK, RFK, and JFK Jr. Perhaps your reading of the situation depends on whether you like the family, or, perhaps, whether you may be running against one like Schweitzer.

Whichever way you read them, these connections have been an important factor for women in politics.

Internationally, political families have played a strong role in women achieving the highest levels of office. Beyond the royal path to the throne, a few examples include Indira Gandhi of India and Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan. And other women have been part of highly powerful political couples, like Corazón Aquino of the Philippines, Cristina Fernández de Kirchner of Argentina, and Sirimavo Bandaranaike of Sri Lanka.

In the United States, many of the first women in office gained their position via political widowhood — meaning their husbands held an office, and when they died in office, their wives took on this position. While this practice is less common now than in the early 1900s, it does still occur. Some of these women only serve out their husband’s term and then leave, often earning them less respect from their colleagues and the label of “benchwarmer.” Others, however, run after their husband’s term has ended, either immediately or after a few elections cycles. Many of these women are elected to office, and are often called “careerists.”

Research by Farida Jalalzai and Chad A. Hankinson has shown that political widows do not just take up the charge of their husbands. Rather, benchwarmers and careerists both differ in their roll call votes from their husbands, and this trend is especially strong regarding careerists. Thus keeping it in the family doesn’t necessarily mean women completely share their husband’s political identities.

Hillary Clinton

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton isn’t a political widow, but it is nonetheless important to keep this difference in mind given all of the speculation around her potential run for the presidency in 2016, and the idea that it may not be quite the 2-for-1 deal some have suggested.

Hillary Clinton has, of course, seen benefits and damages due to her last name, her husband, and the powerful couple they have become over the last few decades in the political spotlight. She had incredible access as First Lady of Arkansas and the United States, took on several projects of her own, and championed these experiences in her bid for the Senate. This access, of course, came at a cost and resulted in public humiliation due to her husband’s very public infidelity.

Some pushed back when she ran for Senate, claiming that her political experience didn’t warrant an office. Chris Matthews took a different approach to her path to success. Matthews had made several comments about Clinton’s viability for office when she ran for Senate, and in her bid for the presidency, he didn’t pull any punches. Commenting on the New Hampshire primary, Matthews said:

The reason she’s a U.S. senator, the reason she’s a candidate for president, the reason she may be a front-runner is her husband messed around.

According to Matthews, it wasn’t bloodlines or necessarily the Clinton name that got Hillary into office, it was perhaps more so the name “Monica Lewinsky.”

The Clintons

Chelsea, Hillary, and Bill Clinton

The Clinton line doesn’t stop there, of course. The 2016 elections are still 3 years off, yet people are already looking long down the line as to whether Chelsea Clinton will run for office one day. The autocompleted search string “chelsea clinton to run for office” produced over 6 million results.

If Chelsea runs, will her bid be seen as the continuation of a much too dominate political dynasty, a la  Brian Schweitzer, or as another chapter in their family legacy? Will we position her as someone running on name recognition and the family coattails? Or will we frame her as someone who has lived in the political world literally since the day she was born, and has thus seen the ins and outs of politics as a child and adult? Ultimately, does her name — what she has made of it and what has been ascribed to her — represent experience or entitlement?

Again, it probably all goes back to your view of the family. Hillary hasn’t even decided yet, and Chelsea is seemingly a world away from deciding, yet her last name, and all of its associations, have already created both a boon and a bane to her potential candidacy. For many of us, names define us whether we want them to or not.

As the saying goes, families are complicated, and political families are no exception.

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Posted in gender, politics

Give a little, take a little: The duality of gender progress in America

When it comes to gender progress, America has a severe case of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde. We say one thing and do another. Every day brings about another reminder.

Today, I received the latest issue of Complex magazine, which supposedly focuses on style, pop culture, music, etc. for young men. (I have no idea why I am receiving this magazine, and, based on a quick search, I am not alone.) The magazine always features two covers on the same issue, one with a female celeb and one with a male celeb. This, on the surface, seems good, it seems like we should applaud their gender-equal approach.

But the good stops there.

Complex magazine covers

The women on these covers are habitually more exposed and sexualized than the men. Covers of the men routinely focus on the face, and covers of the women focus on the typically scantily-clad body. A search for their covers confirms this trend.

Complex’s approach connects to a larger trend in America to champion progress for gender equality, while simultaneously undermining said progress.

When news broke of a 23-year-old woman being brutally gang raped on a bus in India in December 2012, outrage was rampant. Right after the rape became public, and especially after the death of the victim, protests took place around the world.

The U.S. Embassy in New Delhi released this statement, “As we honor the memory of this brave young woman, we also recommit ourselves to changing attitudes and ending all forms of gender-based violence, which plagues every country in the world.”

Yet in the U.S., when two teenagers were found guilty in 2013 for what became known as the “Steubenville High School rape” case, CNN‘s sympathetic coverage focused on how the verdict impacted these “star athletes,” how their “promising futures” were over, and how their lives had fallen apart, without even so much as a whisper of the victim’s life.  America condemns rape and “gender-based violence,” yet prominent voices sympathize with convicted perpetrators.

This duality extends more broadly into other areas of gender.

We champion the success of Marissa Mayor, CEO of Yahoo!, and Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, in the tech industry. Yet, in that same industry, one of the biggest tradeshows, CES, includes a company, HyperDrive, who literally features painted, almost naked women up on pedestals to sell hard drives.

HyperDrive booth at CES

Also in the tech industry, we have a number of programs that encourage young girls to get more active in computer programming, such as Girls Who Code, Black Girls Code, and more. Yet the first presentation at the TechCrunch Disrupt 2013 startup conference was for an app called “Titstare,” an “app where you take photos of yourself staring at tits.” The presentation was a joke, but that does not mitigate its message: Brogramming is alive and well.

And finally, though the list could go on, we have President Obama. Obama was heralded by some as the “first feminist president.” Obama routinely attributed his success to the prominent women in his life, from his strong grandmother to his supportive wife, and he often referenced his two daughters as part of his motivation to lead. Yet even this supposedly fiercely feminist president has not lived up to his title. At an event earlier this year to benefit the Democratic National Committee, Obama was introducing California’s Attorney General Kamala Harris, and he said she is “brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough,” and then he added, “she also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general in the country.”

This post doesn’t offer the solution to America’s complicated relationship with gender and progress. Rather, I aim to point out these inconsistencies to continuously show how the status quo is being reinforced and to show that the patriarchy is not dead. Campaigns by Everyday Sexism, the Women’s Media Center (e.g., Name It. Change It.), Miss Representation, and more also aim to point out these everyday acts in an attempt to bring awareness to just how far we have come, and how far we have left to go.

I firmly believe that awareness is necessary before meaningful action. And my action when it comes to Complex magazine, to HyperDrive, and to other organizations such as these, is I’m #NotBuyingIt.

Update: I called Complex subscription services and was told the publishers were sending me a complimentary copy of the magazine as a courtesy. I told them to please stop extending this courtesy.

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Posted in gender, pop culture


Hanna Rosin, author of The End of Men, declared the end of something else yesterday in her article on Slate:

The Patriarchy Is Dead
Feminists, accept it.

The immediate response to Rosin’s claim was sarcasm. Al Jazeera America did a nice round up of people mocking the article. The push back around the web also featured a classic issue in feminism: People often signal the progress of women in developed countries or of “privileged” women (don’t forget to Lean In everyone!) as progress for all.

Obama victory in 2008

This desire to leapfrog forward and ignore a more nuanced reality is common in other areas, too. When America elected Barack Obama, many rushed to suggest that the US was now a post-racial society. The New York Times headline the day after Election Day 2008, claimed: “Obama: Racial Barrier Falls in Decisive Victory.” Obama’s election was absolutely momentous, but America is still not post-racial.

Nor are we past the divides for gender or sexual orientation. 2012 was a big year. More women ran for Congress than ever before, and the 113th Congress has the highest percentage of women ever. Last year and 2013 also saw notable advances for same-sex marriage, as well as issues surrounding immigration and tax claims for same-sex couples.

Each victory for any marginalized community is absolutely laudable, but it doesn’t put an end to anything.

Rosin sees these victories for women as the end of deep-seated inequality. But each victory is progress on a very long road, not the final destination.

Barriers related to race, gender, sexual orientation, and so on don’t change overnight. These elements are woven into our personal identity and our national identity so tightly and deeply that the good, the bad, and the ugly of them are part of who we are. Advancing change at such an ingrained level takes incremental progress to move us along the continuum spanning from inequality to equality.

The slow, but persistent crawl is encouraging and arduous. Each step of progress is a hard-fought victory, and that’s why a mistake in Rosin’s article is particularly frustrating.

Rosin wrote the following:

The 2012 elections inspired a similar reactionary response in some quarters. A record number of women were elected to Congress, bringing their number to a third of the membership, the level many sociologists cite as a tipping point when a minority becomes normalized and starts to enter the mainstream. In other words, it’s no longer big news when a woman gets elected; it’s the expected.

Yes, as stated, a record number of women were elected, but it was nowhere near a third. Rather, just over 18% of the 113th Congress is female. A number that is both a historic high, and almost half of Rosin’s supposed 33% figure.

Image from the Center for American Women and Politics.

Image from Center for American Women and Politics.

That Rosin did not know this and that the mistake has yet to be corrected as of this posting is ridiculous. Furthermore, that she uses this incorrect figure to claim that we have reached a tipping point and that it is “expected” that women will win is claiming progress that the US is far from making. By claiming success we have yet to achieve, you obscure the work that needs to be done.

The 112th Congress was 16.8% female and the 113th is 18.3%. That’s an increase of 1.5%. If we continue to advance at this rate, it will take approximately 10 election cycles to reach 33%. That means we are decades away from the tipping point, and keep in mind that 2012 was a historic year so future elections may not see such relatively large growth.

We have come along way, but we have a long way to go. Nothing is dead.

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Posted in Politics and gender

Does citizen empathy absolve politicians of their sins?

This week Chris Benderev of NPR published an article entitled, When Power Goes To Your Head, It May Shut Out Your Heart. It featured a study conducted by neuroscientists at Wilfrid Laurier University in which participants were prompted to feel either powerless or powerful — the former by having participants write about a time when they depended on others for help and the latter by writing about a time when they were in charge. They then conducted an exercise, outlined in the full report, and tested whether the exercise tapped into proxy measures of empathy.

Empathy, in its broadest sense, is a reaction to the experiences of another person because one has either actually experienced similar experiences or can imagine being in that situation.

What they found was that feeling powerless triggered higher levels of empahty than feeling powerful. In other words, according to Benderev, “So when people felt power, they really did have more trouble getting inside another person’s head.”

My response to the study was the following tweet:

Empathy is an interesting concept when it comes to politics. In a representative democracy we elect fellow citizens to represent us and our values and concerns as a community, and we expect them to learn about these concerns by, in part, being a member of that community.

As such, it seems as though empathy is almost a necessary requirement for elected leaders. How else can they represent a community and its concerns unless they have empathy with the community?

The expression of empathy seems to have helped previous politicians. An iconic example occurred in the second 1992 presidential debate between George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Clinton and Bush at 1992 presidential debateAn audience member asked the candidates how the national debt had personally affected each candidate’s life, and if it had not, then how could they relate to Americans’ struggles?

Republican incumbent candidate Bush stumbled through his answer, first talking about interest rates, causing the moderator to repeat the question and prompting the audience member to recount how friends had lost jobs or could not afford mortgages. Bush then shared a story about reading in a church bulletin about families struggling to make ends meet, and stating, “everybody’s affected by the debt because of the tremendous interest that goes into paying on that debt everything’s more expensive.” This response, coupled with Bush overtly checking his watch during the debate, made him come across as out of touch, impatient, and unable to connect.

In contrast, Democratic challenger Clinton responded with empathy: “Well, I’ve been governor of a small state for 12 years. I’ll tell you how it’s affected me…I have seen what’s happened in this last 4 years when — in my state, when people lose their jobs there’s a good chance I’ll know them by their names. When a factory closes, I know the people who ran it. When the businesses go bankrupt, I know them.”

It is highly unlikely that a governor of a state knows each employee laid off at a factory, but the personal, more empathic appeal of Clinton’s response was clear. He felt the audience member’s pain because he had experienced it too. He could relate.

Perhaps as the challenger, the potentially less powerful candidate, Clinton had an easier time tapping into empathy. Whereas the incumbent Bush didn’t.

But what does it mean when candidates trigger empathy through their human errs. Is it possible that when candidates are less powerful and more vulnerable due to a scandal that they are not only able to feel more empathy, but perhaps also able to provoke more empathy from others?

Clinton, Gingrich, and Sanford

In the wake of the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky sex scandal, some of the public felt like Clinton’s infidelity made him more human, more relatable. And when I spoke with voters in South Carolina during the 2012 presidential primaries, many saw Newt Gingrich’s multiple infidelities and then later repentance through his conversion to Catholicism for wife Callista as a positive attribute: “Newt is human. He made a mistake; we all make mistakes.” Mark Sanford’s infidelity seemed to be forgiven by voters in South Carolina when his mistress María Belén Chapur became his fiancée, with voters saying, “He did what he had to for true love. Who wouldn’t?”

Each of these men have had political success after their scandal. Clinton is a demigod to the DNC, and the presence of Slick Willy at your campaign event is seen as a blessing. Gingrich won multiple elections after his affairs, including becoming Speaker of the House and he won the South Carolina Republican primary in 2012. Sanford made his way back to the limelight after his trek on the Appalachian Trail and won a seat in Congress.

In these cases, it is citizens’ empathy that seems to save the politician.

And I am sure that Eliot Spitzer and Anthony Weiner are hoping voters are asking themselves, “Who among us hasn’t committed prostitution or had a Carlos Danger moment a time or two?”

As some point, empathy in politics shifted from demanding empathy from our elected leaders so they could properly speak for us to creating empathy for them.

In the cases above, it seems as though the “representative” in representative democracy stands for representing not just our concerns, but our human flaws as well.

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Posted in politics

Always be closing…with relevance

Every morning I wake up and read through my Twitter feed. Usually hundreds of tweets stack up from when I go to bed till when I wake on the West Coast. Often, tweets orbit around the latest social or political happening. But when two seemingly detached tweets converge in my mind on a related note, it feels like kismet.

That convergence happened today around the theme of relevance.

Janet NapolitanoFirst, news broke that Janet Napolitano, U.S. secretary of Homeland Security and former governor of Arizona, would become the next president of the University of California system.

The article by Larry Gordon in the LA Times was filled with many related facts and details about Napolitano’s professional background and the UC system. Then, the article ended with this:

“Napolitano, who is unmarried and has no children, underwent a mastectomy for breast cancer in 2000, just weeks before she addressed the Democratic National Convention.”

How exactly is her marital status or lack of children relevant to her career change? How is her history of breast cancer, and its temporal proximity to the DNC 13 years ago, relevant either?

The theme continued in another article by Melinda Henneberger of the Washington Post about the farm bill and its cuts to food stamps.

The article laid the groundwork for the farm bill, how it would affect funding for food stamps, and then Henneberger noted that, “Some opponents of the bill practically burst into flames on the House floor, where some of the loudest voices were female.” She then goes on to quote several female politicians’ objection to the cuts. Henneberger then abruptly changes direction and concludes with the following:

“Female anger is a hot topic right now; I just finished Claire Messud’s not-nice novel ‘The Woman Upstairs,’ about an elementary school teacher who life has turned into a human cauldron ‘a ravenous wolf.'”

For the moment, I will move past the labeling of concerned female politicians as “female anger,” and focus instead on the move from real female politicians, expressing real concern about funding cuts that could affect millions of families and children, to the association of all of this to a fictional woman.

How is this novel relevant to a discussion of food stamps and women politicians who oppose the cuts to such programs?

It is about as relevant as asking two women vying to become senator of one of the largest states whether they have read “Fifty Shades of Grey.” Or as relevant as calling Avril Danica Haines, who was just named as the Deputy Director of the CIA, “an awesomely kinky dominatrix” because she read Anne Rice aloud at her bookstore in her 20s. As The Daily Beast put it, “The former host of ‘Erotica Night’ at a Baltimore bookstore will be the first-ever female No. 2 official at the CIA.”

How is any of this relevant to the news that is being reported?

And in the case of the Napolitano and food stamp articles, why do the journalists close each article with information that is unrelated?

I know that journalists are not as constrained in terms of word count and column inches due to online publishing, but just because you can say more, doesn’t mean you should.

I also know that journalists for a long time implemented the inverted pyramid, with the most important or eye-grabbing information first, followed by less newsworthy details. This journalistic norm was made all the more popular because readers often didn’t get all the way to the end of an article. Nowadays, it could be considered TL;DR.

But to end articles with irrelevant material seems like a case of the inverted pyramid going too far.

When I was reporting on the 2012 elections for UW Election Eye, I would always belabor over the concluding sentences, trying to make them wrap the whole post up in some perfect little bow. My editor David Domke told me it wasn’t necessary, that some posts can just stop.

So my advice to journalists covering women who feel compelled to close on a completely irrelevant note is this: Just stop.

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Posted in gender, politics

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.

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Posted in gender, politics