A female candidate’s looks? Shhh, don’t mention it.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris (Video)

So, what are we to make of the new survey that suggests that any mention of a female political candidate’s appearance significantly hurts her chances of being elected?

One thing I initially made of it, after reading the whole thing, was to wonder whether the online survey, for the Women’s Media Center and She Should Run, had overstated the case.

Respondents were asked to read descriptions of a theoretical male candidate, Dan Jones, and of a theoretical female candidate, Jane Smith. After a few paragraphs of basic background info — 163 words in all, which pollster Celinda Lake said qualified it as a “lengthy profile” in the current news environment — voters responded to another paragraph that included a description of Jane’s looks, but not Dan’s.

In the neutral version of the experiment, voters were told that Jane was “dressed in a brown blouse, black skirt, and modest pumps with a short heel.” The so-called positive version said, “In person, Smith is fit and attractive, and looks even younger than her age. At the press conference, smartly turned out in a ruffled jacket, pencil skirt, and fashionable high heels…”

The negative reference seemed to be straight out of one of those reality shows where they tell you how bad you look: “Smith unfortunately sported a heavy layer of foundation and powder that had settled into her forehead lines, creating an unflattering look for an otherwise pretty woman, along with her famous fake, tacky nails.” But no, all of these examples were culled from real news stories, I’m sorry to say.

The info provided about good old Dan did not describe his appearance at all — but did praise him as plain-speaking and compelling. Which is comparing apples to apple pie, isn’t it?

And doesn’t the exercise devote an unusually large amount of space to out-of-nowhere physical descriptions of Jane? Lake says no; to my point that a brief physical description tucked into a 3,000-word profile is different from one that dominates a mere snippet, she said, “That’s fine,” but when’s the last time I saw any piece that long in any newspaper? (Alas, too true.)

Still, instead of imposing a gag order on what’s in front of our eyes, shouldn’t we instead try to cover men and women the same way? New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie might argue we’re making progress on that front already.

Meanwhile, though, Lake insists that almost any mention of appearance hurts a woman running for office, “because right now, men aren’t” covered the same way, and most such references to appearance aren’t relevant.

To my point that to get a cleaner result, you’d have to compare the reaction to a description of a woman to the same sort of description of a man, Lake didn’t completely disagree: “The logical conclusion is that we should do a study to see if it hurts men the same way.”

Her bet, though, is that it wouldn’t, and that women are “trivialized” by any mention of the trivial in a way men are not — as evidenced by the fact that voters never say they’d vote for a man “if he’s qualified” — but that’s a frequent response when they’re asked whether they’d vote for a woman.

 


Hillary Clinton at a news conference in Yangon, Myanmar. (Saul Loeb/AP)

Many years ago, I remember bristling at a description of Elizabeth Dole as “still attractive at 43″ and that sort of observation is offensive, period.

I remain unconvinced, though, that all descriptions are created equal; is yet another examination of the meaning of Hillary Clinton’s latest haircut — which I would argue might actually help her, by rallying the troops against such folly — really the same as a few words of physical description tucked into a long magazine piece?

Recently, while looking for something else, I ran across a newspaper profile I wrote in the ’90s in which, to my profound embarrassment, I actually described a politician as looking like a male model. (Steve Largent, I think I owe you an apology.)

I still don’t think the president owed California Attorney General Kamala Harris one, though. We urge politicians to be more authentic, then pillory them when they are, even for a minute.

When an old friend can’t add a completely gentlemanly nod to his pal’s good looks at the end of a long passage praising her intelligence, talent and determination, that’s just not “disgraceful,” but silly — and would seem to prove right those old guys who complained, back when the concept of sexual harassment was newer, “So I won’t even be able to tell you you look nice now?”

We actually do know the difference between leering and a simple compliment. Or so I thought, anyway.

Melinda Henneberger

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer and She the People anchor who is spending this semester as a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School’s Shorenstein Center. Follow her on Twitter at @MelindaDC.

Melinda Henneberger has been writing about politics and culture for the Washington Post since 2011.
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Diana Reese | April 10, 2013