Least Convincing Study Ever: Voters Don't Care How Lady Politicos Look

Have you been operating under the assumption that women in politics are held to an unfair physical standard while male politicians get to paunch over their golfing Dockers like a bunch of semi-retired Dads? Did you assume that a woman's failure to be pretty and skinny and feminine enough might kill her political career before it even begins? Well, according to new research, you're wrong— voters, in fact, don't care how lady politicians look, like, at all! To respond to this via terse passive aggressive text message intended to convey sarcastic acquiescence: K.

The feminist catnip title "Voters don't care how women in politics look" precedes a piece in the Washington Post that explores the way negative descriptions of female politicians' appearance in media coverage impacts voters' opinions of the candidates. Among the rising din of WTF around looks-based coverage of ladies in the annals of power, George Washington University professor Danny Hayes and writer Jennifer Lawless conducted their own research to determine just how much bitchy coverage of, say, Hillary Clinton sours voters to her. Their findings?

We find that women don’t pay a higher price than men for coverage of their appearance. Unflattering coverage does hurt, but it lowers voters’ assessments of both men and women equally. Like other emerging political science research, we show that voters don’t hold women and men to different standards on the campaign trail.

In other words, the media can talk smack until they're blue in the face, but when it comes to politicians, the public heart wants what the public heart wants regardless of whether or not the politician in question has two X chromosomes and wardrobe full of Ann Taylor.

In determining that looks-based sexism is deader than the Republican party, the WaPo team invented two Senate candidates — one male, one female — and penned newspaper-y articles about each one. The pieces were exactly the same — except researchers varied the candidate's sex as well as the way the candidate's looks were described. Hayes and Lawless found that study participants assessed both candidates more or less equally. Being described as a hot mess in print made readers think less of the candidates, sure, but they thought less of the candidates equally.

Sounds great, right? Sexism is dead! Let's all pack it up and head home; job here finished. Feminism accomplished. I guess I'm going to have to go back to working in finance and looking at gifs of Lloyd Blankfein in my spare time. Worth it.

All of this would be wonderful if the WaPo team's findings were true and applicable to the current media landscape — but, they're not.

I don't want to minimize what the WaPo team found, because it's lovely that we live in a time when the public is equally mean to ugly people of both genders. But when's the last time that a person's exposure to a political figure has been limited to a print description? CNN's website automatically plays video now (which is why I never visit CNN's website). Half of the internet is made of photo slide show retrospectives. Every waiting room and airport in the country is piping in 24-hour news channels playing constant B-roll footage of politicians walking to and from airplanes and reading books to classrooms of 3rd grade children of constituents and wearing hard hats. Declaring that voters "don't care" how female politicians look after comparing how a small sample size reacts to a printed description of female politicians is making assumptions about media that haven't been true since the advent of Talkies. If we really wanted declare conclusively that voters "don't care" how female political figures look, to sniff out how sexism plays out in public reception of politicians, we'd have to evaluate how voters respond to visual as well as print descriptions, and assess the way photographs and footage of politicians are both presented and received on both a conscious and subconscious level. We'd have to find a male counterpart to that Michele Bachmann CRAZY EYES Newsweek cover. Which is just not something WaPo research does.

Hayes and Lawless's research doesn't prove that people "don't care" how female politicians look, but what it did find was that voters say they don't care how female politicians are written about. There's more than enough room for the Holy Spirit between what the piece purports to find and what the research actually found.

So, sorry, ladies and gents — I apologize for that preemptive declaration of the end of political sexism. Now who wants to help me roll up this MISSION ACCOMPLISHED banner and get back to work?

[WaPo]