Sunday, May 13, 2018

Does physical attractiveness affect electability? Yes.

Even if attractiveness matters in politics, it may not be OK to observe it.  And certainly not OK to say it aloud.

Noticing the obvious may be "sexist". Or "objectifying." Or just plain wrong to do.

There may be some things that are true, and everyone knows it, but which must not be acknowledged.

Jessica Gomez: Profile Photo
This blog attempts to look at political messages. By having sat in the front row at multiple events at presentations for all the presidential candidates, Democrat and Republican, male and female, I developed an insight that is so obvious to be un-noticed. Political speeches are presentations. 

Answers that look offhand are in fact practiced. Politicians at the highest level give the same answers sometimes word for word, with the same hesitations and apparent search for words, to audience questions that are utterly predictable, from audience to audience. Politicians are actors, I concluded, playing a part written and directed by themselves and others. They are actors playing themselves.

(Trump, too. His presentations are unscripted but well practiced. Trump does his schicht, a familiar extemporaneous stand-up comedy/policy ramble.)

Body language. Audiences responded to body language and tone and emotional affect. Audiences come away thinking a person is "strong" or "confident" or "angry" or "really smart" and this--not their policy prescriptions--is the major takeaway. I concluded that voters respond to mood and character, more than policy.

Is it OK to say a female candidate presents herself as "attractive"? Maybe not.

Athena Goldberg: Profile Photo
Yesterday I described both Athena Goldberg and Jessica Gomez with a variety of adjectives, reflecting their presentations and political personas, including "professional", "charismatic", "energetic", "appealing." I also used the word "attractive", which I later deleted when I received emails and Facebook comments objecting strongly. Some people say I made a significant gaffe. 

I learned that it was not an adequate defense to say that I also described male candidates in what I consider an accurate, objective manner, saying Jeff Golden often looks outdoorsy and "rumpled," or that Kevin Stine, especially without a beard, looks "young," or that Julian Bell is accentuating data-driven bookishness. 

Politicians intentionally choose their campaign profile pictures. There are culturally defined styles of health and beauty and "attractiveness" and it is my inference that both Gomez and Goldberg attempted to conform to it, and succeeded.  

Everyone takes bad photos, ones that capture a face in odd mid-expression. Those get deleted. I don't know what artifice--if any--of hair color, haircuts, makeup, lipstick, each woman used, although I observe that each are wearing ear rings, each are looking directly at the camera, each has eyes widely open, each have warm smiles, each have heads slightly tilted. These are, to my mind, "good photos." They chose them.

Jeff Golden: Profile Photo
And--at the risk of creating a new email firestorm of indignation--I observe that each meets the standard of being "attractive," and that this is not simply an accident of DNA. It was intentional. Is this judgement--"attractive"--an artifact of male domination or some kind of gender or cultural violence against women?  Some people have said the judgement of appearance by women--women judge, too--does not make it any less sexist or objectionable. 

Possibly there is no respectful way to acknowledge what I consider an obvious fact--that Gomez and Goldberg attempt to meet a cultural standard. Still, I am attempting to do exactly that. I consider it respectful and accurate.

Their constructed appearance is part of their political message. If it is cultural violence to acknowledge attractiveness, then it isn't just me doing it. It is the candidates, too.

In fact, we all do it. People in fact judge. I think it is OK to acknowledge the truth.

Men are not exempted from body language judgement. Jeff Golden undoubtedly had numerous photos taken for his campaign. He uses this one. He looks healthy for his 68 years. He is now gray. He looks up at the camera, perhaps in a nonverbal attempt to communicate humility along with friendliness. He isn't "looking down at us." He knows issues thoroughly, so some people might wonder if he is haughty or a know-it-all. This photo works against that potential impression--a good choice.

Is he "attractive"? Yes, I would say that for a 68 year old guy, he is much better looking than average, full head of hair, in good shape. But Golden isn't trying to look "attractive" in my opinion. Attractiveness is a dangerous look for a man, implying forbidden behaviors. Instead, he is trying to look earnest, warm, well meaning.
Dennis Kucinich: Profile Photo

Gomez's photo, in particular, seems to me to be going for a certain amount of  low key "glamour." Not Vogue Magazine glamour.  Not Cosmopolitan glamour. She is not extravagantly made up. It is a professional look, very appropriate for a political candidate, but apparently polished and perfected. I have no insight into her inner life or thoughts and whether she welcomes or objects to being thought "attractive", but I will observe what she publicly presents in her profile photo: she conforms to standards American men and women both describe as "attractive."

All three of these candidates--Gomez, Goldberg, Golden--got lucky in the DNA lottery, and then accentuated the positive. Some people are not so lucky. Dennis Kucinich of Ohio has had a long political career, and throughout his career has had to work against a headwind. His politics are decisively progressive with direct challenges against the status quo.  He is a tough guy, politically. However, he is very short, has ears that are big for his head, and he looks boyish and impish. It is Kucinich's own profile photo. His appearance works against his political persona. He doesn't look like a tough guy.

American culture embeds areas of discrimination and unfairness against certain people. Gender bias. Racial bias. Bias against the old. Bias against the disabled. Bias against the overweight. Bias against the "funny looking."  And on and on.

Perhaps by observing aloud the reality of one version of this bias, I have confirmed and perpetuated an element of cultural violence. Being "attractive" is an advantage in politics. I consider this real. I think the candidates themselves realize it, which is why they try to make themselves look good--attractive--and so I write about it.


Rick Millward said...

For the most part "tough guys" aren't successful politicians. The current state of affairs is a historical aberration, not to mention a fraud.

Yes, some of the candidates are "attractive" by some cultural measures, advertising stereotypes, and such. It's been noted that these qualities sometimes infer intelligence and other positive qualities as well, though smart people know better.

Anonymous said...

Recently, I have been enjoying this blog, and though I haven't commented before, I feel compelled now.

I think looks do impact how candidates are judged. They want to appeal to their voters and being "attractive" to voters is key. In this case, my use of the word "attractive" is meant to refer less to looks but to highlight how it is often synonymous with "appealing."

That said, words change meaning depending on context. For example, think of the gaffe that Joe Biden made when he referred to then-candidate Barack Obama as "articulate." Because of the word's racial history, it was no longer just a description of Obama but rather a judgement saturated by the paternalist and racist history that has defined African Americans as inarticulate and thus unequal.

By the same token, women have been judged by their looks in ways men are not. That is just a fact, and while you may have also described how men look, you didn't use the word "attractive" to describe them. That is a key distinction because while all candidates need to appeal to their potential voters, in the context of women, "attractive" has a particular gendered history and context that, in this context, can seem sexist. This is in part, because describing female political candidates (or women in other positions of power) as "attractive" has often been a tactic to undermine their ability and credibility. That is, if they are too attractive they are not capable or they must rely on their good looks to get ahead. Conversely, if they are not attractive enough, they are also potentially not appealing enough. I can't help but think of Trump's comments about Fiorina.

Women have to thread such a small needle when it comes to their looks that it's best to avoid talking about looks altogether, in my opinion.

Dave Sage said...

Being at least average or better is a must on the political stage. Kennedy vs Nixon, Nixon vs Humphrey (tie), Carter vs Ford, Regan vs Carter, Bush vs Dekakus, Bush vs Gore ( was a tie), Clinton vs Bush, Clinton vs Dole, Obamma vs McCaine, Obamma vs Romney (tie), Trump vs Clinton. It seems to me the more attractive person wins. If Hilary Clinton would have been just a little more attractive, she would be our president. I'm not saying this should be the case, but I am saying that is the case. Anyone who is liberal and attractive want to be president?

Anonymous said...

You said what I was going to say. Obviously voters can see what they see. If that is human nature we don't need to be told who is attractive to us. It was sexist due to the opinion that the female candidates were said to be attractive, not the men. Also it isn't a fact and isn't a reason to promote a candidate.

Anonymous said...

A revolt against political correctness is a significant part of how Trump got elected.

The left is pushing political correctness so hard that the even folks on their own side such as you are getting hit. It reminds me of Orwell’s 1984, Mao’s Cultural Revolution, etc. I think the American people have too much common sense to ever embrace this sort of political correctness.

Peter Coster said...

I remember the Kennedy/Nixon debates on TV. Kennedy looked great. Young and energetic. Nixon looked like he was made up by a mortician. The people who heard it on radio thought that Nixon had won. The people who saw it on TV thought Kennedy had won. Looks make a difference.

Anonymous said...

OK, I am going to be non-PC and say it: I think Jeff Golden is pretty— even without the head tilt.