The Effects of Media's Focus on Women Candidates' Appearance Aren't Pretty
By Karin Agness
If Hillary Clinton’s new haircut “sends a signal of shimmering intention“ about another presidential run according to New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd, then I wonder what signal Vice President Joe Biden’s hair is sending.
While predicting a person’s political future by a haircut seems harmless, research released this week by Name It. Change It., a joint project of the Women’s Media Center and She Should Run, suggests that how the press covers the appearance of women candidates matters in elections.
Name It. Change It. seeks to “end sexist and misogynistic coverage of women candidates by all members of the press — from bloggers to radio hosts to television pundits.” Since Gloria Steinem spoke at Name It. Change It’s launch, it might be tempting to dismiss the effort as that of another left-wing feminist group meant to advance the interests solely of liberal women candidates. Yet Representative Michele Bachmann is featured on the group’s homepage, along with Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Elizabeth Warren under the tagline, “when you attack one woman, you attack all women.”
The research shows the importance of discouraging the media’s focus on the appearance of women candidates. Using an online survey of 1500 likely voters nationwide with an oversample of 100 young women voters, age 18-35, Lake Research Partners and Chesapeake Bay Consulting conducted an experiment with a hypothetical Congressional contest between a female candidate, Jane Smith, and a male candidate, Dan Jones. Survey participants read a profile of the two candidates and then heard a series of news stories containing different details on the appearance of the woman candidate, with a quarter hearing no appearance description, and a quarter each hearing a negative, positive or neutral appearance description.
It is not surprising that the research found that negative coverage damages the woman’s candidacy. But what about the positive coverage? The positive description stated, “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...” Many women candidates would probably like being described as looking fit and attractive, but not after this survey.
As Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners explains, “Women candidates pay a real price when they are covered in a way that focuses on their appearance.”
The study found that any coverage of a woman candidate’s appearance had a detrimental impact on her candidacy. Regardless of whether the coverage of her appearance was framed negatively, positively or in neutral terms, it damaged her candidacy with these potential voters. Appearance coverage dragged down how appealing the woman candidate was on some key traits, with the greatest average losses on the qualities of being in touch, likeable, confident, effective and qualified. Someone might want to mention this to President Barack Obama, who last week told a group of donors that California Attorney General Kamala Harris is “the best looking attorney general in the country.” He later apologized.
While Name It. Change It. may work to discourage the media’s focus on women candidates’ appearance, this group may face an uphill battle. So, what is a woman candidate to do? The research found that the woman candidate can regain ground by responding directly to the coverage, saying something like it “has no place in the media,” “my appearance is not news” or “we must end this type of coverage for women candidates.”
This is helpful information for women running for office. The fact that we have a record number of women in the Senate shows that more women are figuring out how to navigate being a woman candidate successfully.
One key lesson from this research for women candidates is that they are better off if they can limit press coverage of their appearance. That means that if Michelle Obama decides to run for office, she would be wise to turn down the next offer to appear on the cover of Vogue.