Friday, May 11, 2012

Bachmann, Palin and the Role of Physical Appearance in Politics Generally

Following up on an earlier post about media attention to the sex appeal of Bachmann and Palin, I wanted to add that I don’t remember ever hearing similar comments about Newt Gingrich or John McCain when they were running for the GOP nomination.

Oh, wait, they are both male, and neither gentleman is considered physically attractive per our cultural standards.  Of course, we tend to not care what people like Gingrich and McCain look like.  How silly to judge them on looking dumpy.  They are serious political thinkers.  Looks don’t matter.  We’re looking for a president, not a pin-up.

That double standard concerns me greatly. 

I think by any objective measure, both Governor Palin and Representative Bachmann are endowed with great physical beauty.  I wonder what would have happened if they were not.

Actually, I should be more explicit.  I don’t just wonder, I have a very strong hunch.  I feel quite sure that it is not a coincidence that these two women—the first nationally viable Republican candidates we have ever had—are both quite pretty.  In all honesty, I don’t believe Palin or Bachmann would have gotten as far as they did if they were homely by our culture’s standards.  There have been other women who have run for high office, but they didn’t get as far.  If asked, I doubt most people would think that those other female candidates were as attractive in terms of physical beauty.  I’m not naming names, but it seems an obvious pattern to me. 

To be clear, I’m not saying Palin and Bachmann have gotten where they are solely on their looks.  Not at all.  Though I vehemently disagree with them on many (or maybe most) issues, I acknowledge that they are gifted orators and shrewd politicians. 

What I am saying is that very sadly I think there is a litmus test for female candidates.  To be successful in politics, they have to have all the same positive characteristics and credentials as male candidates, but they also have to be physically beautiful.  The less attractive women do not make it as far.

Nancy Pelosi is another example of this.  Again, she is a very handsome woman.  She has a lot of skills that helped her become the first female Speaker of the House.  But if she had buckteeth, a big nose, frizzy hair and a protruding gut, my guess is she would never have made it to be third in line for the White House. 

However, if you reflect back over the gentlemen who have served in leadership in Congress, by societal standards many of them were considered unattractive.  For a man that doesn’t seem to matter.  For a woman though, it is a huge roadblock.

This point is not something I see mentioned in the media, but it is something that should get more attention.  I am not sure most of us in the electorate realize that we seem to be imposing a double standard for female candidates.  They have to be smart and have to possess strong oratory gifts.  But they also have to be pretty.

Male candidates never seem to be looked down upon for a lack of physical beauty.  Actually it can be a detriment to them if they are perceived as too handsome.  Governor Rick Perry of Texas was dismissively derided by the late Molly Ivins as “Governor Good Hair.”  Dismissing his political aptitude and accomplishments, Ms. Ivins joked that his lovely coif was something that brought pride to all Texans. 

Senator Scott Brown of Massachusetts has also experienced flack for his good looks.  To help pay for his education at a prestigious private law school, Brown posed nude for Cosmopolitan and then did a fair amount of modeling with his clothes on.  Posing nude does not help a candidate to be taken more seriously, regardless of gender.  But could you imagine Pelosi, Palin or Bachmann being as popular as they have been to their respective constituencies if it were publicly known that earlier in their lives they had posed topless for Playboy or Maxim?  Brown overcame his nude modeling to accomplish an astounding feat—capturing the Senate seat of the late Democrat Ted Kennedy for the GOP.  I somehow doubt a female candidate who had posed nude would have had similar success regardless of her intellect or the political positions she endorsed.

2 Corinthians 5:12

We are not commending ourselves to you again but giving you cause to boast about us, so that you may be able to answer those who boast about outward appearance and not about what is in the heart.

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