Is it Really a Problem to be an Attractive Woman in Politics?

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In a nation where the late John F. Kennedy is still regarded as one of the best-looking and popular presidents in history, why are voters predicted to give less votes to the most attractive female presidential candidate based on media coverage of her looks? Slate’s XX Factor released an article in 2013 called, “When the media compliments a female politician’s looks, she loses the election,” describing this very phenomenon. The article outlines a hypothetical congressional contest between a male and female candidate. Fake news stories are presented about each candidate to 1,500 likely U.S. voters, then asked participants how they would cast their vote. Voters who heard mundane stories about “bills,” etc. split their votes evenly between the two candidates. However, when voters heard stories that snuck in references to the female candidate’s physical appearance, it lost her a substantial amount of votes compared to her male competitor.

In this hypothetical situation, voters lost their confidence in the female candidate  whether the coverage of her looks were neutral, very flattering, or really mean. Therefore, even when the discussion of female politicians’ appearance is complimentary, it damages her chances of winning votes. Nearly six years later, similar headlines such as, “When the media compliments a female politician’s looks, she loses the election,” can be used to describe media coverage of female candidates in the 2020 presidential election. With a number of women running for office, this is a significant discussion people must continue to have.

Politicians such as Hilary Clinton, Sarah Palin, and Kamala Harris have all been disadvantaged after the media covered news pertaining to their physical appearance. Coverage that should remain about politics, morphs into a superficial and useless depiction of their hair, makeup, shoes and clothing. While male politicians have rarely experienced the phenomenon of physical appearance affecting election results (i.e. President Donald Trump), the same has not and cannot be said about female candidates. During the 2016 presidential election, the media often criticized Hilary Clinton for her short hair and colorful pantsuits while criticizing Kamala Harris, running in the upcoming 2020 presidential election for, in contrast, wearing too much makeup and accessories.  

Female politicians are often not taken seriously if they are attractive. This is clearly derivative of the narrative that good-looking women are unintelligent and spend too much time and effort on their appearance, which is assumed to be a priority for them. This is exceptionally problematic for women politicians because it is a huge disadvantage when running for office. If voters are not casting votes in their favor due to such media coverage, candidates that could make the nation into a better, more representative place, are unable to.

The responsibility lies on the media to not report or publish miscellaneous details such as physical appearance of female politicians, and to focus solely on what they are saying and doing. This is a privilege that male politicians are allocated automatically. It is time we demand that same respect for the women candidates running for office in the 2020 presidential election.

In addition,  voters should be able to differentiate between useless information about the politicians’ looks while understanding that the coverage may hurt her chances of winning an election, intentional or otherwise. An approach that female politicians can use to regain votes after such media coverage, is to address that looks-based coverage has no place in the media and that her appearance is not news.