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Sarah Palin: Too hot for politics?

We all know the phrase “boys don’t make passes at girls who wear glasses” … but do they vote for them? What if they’re hot and wear glasses? What if they’re hot, wear glasses and carry a gun?

University of South Florida psychologists Nathan Heflick and Jamie Goldenberg decided to find out. Before the 2008 Presidential election, they asked 133 undergraduates a series of questions about two famous hotties: Sarah Palin and Angelina Jolie (both of whom probably groan at being placed together in any sentence, even for the sake of science). The researchers asked questions about various attributes, including competence. Apparently, the fact that Sarah Palin is attractive wasn’t helping her win votes.

Their findings, recently pubished in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology under the title Objectifying Sarah Palin: Evidence that Objectification Causes Women to be Perceived as Less Competent and Less Fully Human, are summarized for layfolks here: http://www.miller-mccune.com/article/sex-appeal-may-have-hurt-sarah-palin-1041

Those who wrote about Palin’s appearance were more positive in their assessments than those who assessed her qualities as a person, but they rated her far lower in terms of competence, intelligence and capability, and were far less likely to indicate they planned to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket.

“It wasn’t her appearance per se” that soured people on Palin, Heflick said in an interview. “It was the effect her appearance had on their perception of her competence and humanity. Those variables made people less likely to vote for her.” (Not surprisingly, the participants’ feelings about Jolie did not influence their political opinions, whether they focused on her looks or personality.)

Heflick noted that all the self-proclaimed Democrats participating in the exercise indicated they were voting for Obama. So at least in this sample, it was Republicans and independents who were internally debating Palin’s suitability for the job. The study suggests that their confidence in her abilities may have decreased the more they focused on her looks — and thus, in feminist terms, objectified her.

The good folks at Miller-McCune conclude that “Americans have come to accept the idea of a female president, but we may not quite be ready for a sex-symbol-in-chief.”

Whoah, let’s hold up a second before the media goes into a feeding frenzy. It’s a small study: Extrapolating this to make suggestions about the state of American politics is a mistake. Yes, it underscores our cultural fears, but is it true in the way it’s being portrayed?

Some thoughts:

  1. Are we honestly going to say that 133 undergrads at a southern Florida university have their finger on the pulse of gender inequalities in America? I don’t trust 133 college students to tell me the way the world works. Also, it’s only at one university.
  2. I’m curious to know what the students would have said if they’d also been given a choice of an ugly famous person. Or a pretty non-famous woman? Plus, comparing a celebrity with a politician is difficult to begin with: They aren’t on par with each other.
  3. Still, the study is pointing out something real: Research shows that women and girls value themselves based on their appearance (often negatively) even if everything else about them is positive.
  4. Studies about attractive women not getting jobs because of their appearance (i.e. if you’re pretty, you must also be stupid) are mostly from the 1980s, which was a totally different era. As recently as the 1980 Census, there was a clear “success penalty” for women: If you were educated or earned a high salary, you were less likely to marry and have children. But that’s just not true today (in fact, it’s the reverse). So we’ve got to take the older studies with a grain of salt.
  5. In social psychology, there’s the concept of “status generalizations” whereby we think of people based on the assumptions we make about other people like them, rather than them as an individual. These snap judgements help maintain inequalities without us even knowing it. Gender is a “master status” — meaning it trumps most other elements and becomes one of the first things people notice about us. A woman has a lower status than a man in the workplace because our pre-conscious brain just automatically associates women with the home (and not with work). It would make sense that an attractive woman would have an even harder time winning at that status generalization game.

My conclusion: We make snap judgments about people for all sorts of unfair reasons. Gender and appearance are among them. But please do three things before you make a snap judgment and decide this research is actionable for the next election:

  1. Make a list of all the things you wouldn’t believe just because 133 college students said so.
  2. Think about why you want to believe this particular bit of data.
  3. Post your response here. I’ll use this for fodder for my next Gender & Society lecture.

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March 5, 2009 - Posted by | Academic Musings

1 Comment »

  1. Yes, I think the issue is not how Palin looked, but how her looks were treated in the media and also the extent to which she was willing to play on her sex appeal. That is, if the boys from the National Review and Weekly Standard cruises hadn’t slavered over her being a beauty queen in their (pro-Palin!) writing; if the pageant hadn’t come up in most of the early, “who is Palin?” coverage; if Palin herself hadn’t been winking in the VP debate — I think her looks would have had much less impact.

    Comment by PG | March 6, 2009 | Reply


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