Merritt Baer is a Harvard Law School student living in Cambridge, Massachusetts. This semester, she wrote the following brief essay for a seminar on situationism. We are delighted to publish it on The Situationist (the essay and some worthwhile comments also can be found on GlobalComment).
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In her concession speech, Hillary Clinton dedicated her gratitude “to the moms and dads who came to our events, who lifted their little girls and little boys on their shoulders and whispered in their ears, ‘See, you can be anything you want to be.’”
Yet given the scrutiny dedicated to her pantsuits, Hillary’s vision of possibility seems limited. Indeed, a new study by researchers led by Northwestern University’s Joan Y. Chiao and just published on October 31 found that while men need only seem competent in order to be electable, women need both competence and attractiveness.
Palin was selected in the aftermath and with the awareness of how Hillary was characterized as not attractive or even female enough. In a sense this draws new justifiability for Sarah Palin’s reportedly lofty budget for aesthetics, from hair stylists to department store budgets. It seems that if she had not spent time and money on her appearance, she could have suffered yet more critique.
Even CNN’s Campbell Brown, who was far from a Palin supporter, said “There has been plenty of talk and plenty written about Sarah Palin’s jackets, her hair, her looks . . . .When I wear a bad outfit, I get viewer email complaining about it. A lot of email. Seriously.” She continued dryly, “When Wolf Blitzer wears a not-so-great tie, how much email do you think he gets?” She makes a good point.
Meanwhile, in the midst of the pressure to look good, there is the catch-22 at work: Bill Maher calling Palin a stewardess, movies of her in a swimsuit for a beauty pageant becoming the hot new YouTube video to circulate, and widespread sexualization of Palin becoming a favorite American pastime.
It seems clear that attractiveness in general plays a part in the reception a politician gets. However, Barack Obama’s handsomeness contributed to his campaign strongly in positive ways – even becoming part of his branding, as his profile was featured on t-shirts and buttons. For Sarah Palin’s naughty librarian beauty, there is a cost to the attractiveness factor: Palin was not merely attractive, she was sexy.
And while Chiao’s study suggests that female politicians need to be perceived as both attractive and competent, a sexy woman just does not go with competence. (When does attractiveness intersect with or become sexiness? I am not entirely sure–perhaps it is merely being very attractive that veers into the category of sexy, although it seems also to encompass those who for some reason capture the public imagination, like Palin’s rough-and-tumble hobbies.)
On the contrary, female sexiness triggers that animalistic side of our brains that seems opposed to intelligent thought (while male sexiness seems often to derive from and contribute to their aura of powerfulness). Thus audiences were primed to find Palin incompetent, and eager to hear the latest evidence. Not knowing Africa was a continent was perfect news.
Yet of course Obama – and all of the other candidates – had his share of campaign gaffes. When Obama stated on camera that he had visited 57 states, no one rushed to the conclusion that he actually didn’t know the 50 states–instead, people looked for explanations: well, maybe he was including US territories. Never mind that the New York Times now reports that Palin’s Africa gaffe was leaked by a fake blogger under the auspices of a fake think tank – the story had already taken a life of its own. We looked for reinforcements of Palin’s incompetence, and we found them.
In some ways, this catch-22 lends a new dimension to the “halo effect” – the idea that an attractive person is advantaged because of their attractiveness. The attractiveness halo effect was first documented by social psychologist Solomon Asch, but we may know it anecdotally to be true that attractive people tend to have more success both professionally and in the dating arena. It’s one of the reasons we have celebrity endorsements–attractiveness influences our overall perception of the person such that we assume their preferences for a product are as desirable as their looks.
Yet the disturbing implication is that while the halo effect works in purely positive ways for men, for women attractiveness is both even more necessary (see Chiao’s study) and often simultaneously crippling (see Palin’s representations).
After the final presidential debate between Obama and Mccain, newsanchor Katie Couric asked Hillary Clinton, “Why do you think Sarah Palin has an action figure and you have a nutcracker?” Clinton replied that she didn’t know. But Hillary Clinton knows better than anyone that capturing the American audience as a woman is a balancing act.
The constant criticism dedicated to Hillary’s pantsuits culminated in the marketing of a “Hillary Clinton nutcracker,” in which her thighs serve as the nutcrackers (perish the thought of imagining what a comparable doll would look like for Obama…?) Meanwhile, Sarah Palin, who took a cue and opted for the skirtsuit and heels, became the subject of sexualized mockery. Interesting too that often, the originators of derogatory material directed at both Clinton and Palin were from the ideological left, a position we associate with progressive and tolerant views,
Unfortunately, we may be bypassing qualified or even brilliant individuals because they do not navigate the femininity/competence minefield – and who can? Perhaps Clinton was wrong to urge children to believe that they can be anything they want to be. Beautiful or not, our daughters will encounter the attractiveness and competence quotients– asked to be both while the catch-22 prevents it. And the minute their delicate juggling act topples, we will be quick to caricature them as a nutcracker doll or an Africa joke.
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To read some related Situationist posts, see “The Color of Sex Appeal,” “The Situation of Body Image,” “The Situation of Hair Color,” “The Magnetism of Beautiful People,” “Survival of the Cutest,” “Spas and Girls,” “Fitting in and Sizing Up,” and “Shades of Fairness and the Marketing of Prejudice.”