No, It's Not Sexist to Describe Women Politicians' Clothes

A new study disputes the claim that it harms female politicians when the media discuss their appearance.
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Women members of the House of Representatives at the 2012 Democratic convention. (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

I first found out I wasn't supposed to write about women politicians' clothes in 2006. Profiling the Democratic nominee for Nevada governor for the Las Vegas Review-Journal, I had described her as habitually wearing a "shapeless skirt suit."

I wrote that because it was the sort of visual detail that helps readers engage with a piece's subject, and because it illuminated the persona of the candidate, a political science professor. But she took it as a slur. I soon heard that she'd taken to repeating the description at Democratic campaign meetings as evidence of the sexism and media bias her candidacy faced. "Molly Ball, in the Review-Journal, wrote that I wore shapeless skirts!" she would hiss, to sympathetic noises from the crowd. I have no doubt she was wearing a shapeless skirt suit when she said it. But the accuracy of the description wasn't the point; it was the way I'd supposedly tried to trivialize her by writing about the way she looked.

As a newly minted political reporter, it was one of my first lessons in the sinister motivations partisans frequently read into coverage intended as neutral. It was also my introduction to an enduring trope in American politics: the idea that any mention of a woman's appearance constitutes damaging sexism. Jon Ward of the Huffington Post got a similar education recently when he wrote about South Carolina congressional candidate Elizabeth Colbert Busch. He described her wearing "a bright orange overcoat that radiated positive vibes," prompting @nameitchangeit -- "Fighting sexism in the media directed at women candidates and politicians" -- to call him out on Twitter: "Honestly @jonward11 (and rest of @HuffingtonPost), can we stick to the candidates and leave their outfits out of it?" (When Ward pointed out that he'd also described the clothing of Colbert Busch's male opponent, the original blog post attacking his coverage was taken down and replaced with a less critical one.)

In April, Name It Change It issued a study aimed at proving that media mentions of women's appearance hurt their chances of getting elected. The group's researchers conducted a poll in which respondents were introduced to two imaginary candidates -- one male, one female. Then they were split into four groups. The first group, the control, was shown a news story about the candidates in which neither candidate's appearance was mentioned. The second got a story in which the woman's style was described in neutral terms; the third heard a harshly negative description of the woman's appearance; and the fourth was shown a positive portrayal of the woman's looks.

As my colleague Garance Franke-Ruta wrote at the time, the study found that it didn't matter whether the description was positive, negative, or neutral; any mention of the woman candidate's appearance was detrimental to voters' opinions of her. "Jane Smith" got a 69 percent favorable rating when her appearance was not described; her favorability rating dropped to 61 percent with the neutral description, 57 percent with the positive description and 58 percent with the negative one. "Importantly," the study concluded, "even appearance coverage that purports to be neutral or complimentary damages the woman."

But Franke-Ruta also noted that the descriptions the study tested weren't exactly realistic representations of the way the media describes women candidates. "The researchers provide three examples about hypothetical candidate Jane Smith, but I'm not sure these actually communicate what they are intended to," Franke-Ruta wrote. The supposedly "neutral" description, she observed, sounded dowdy; the "negative" description of heavy makeup and "famous fake, tacky nails" communicated something "highly culturally specific."

I can't imagine a mainstream news article describing a candidate's appearance in such overtly judgmental tones. (The study's authors claim their examples are drawn from real news coverage, but the bit about the nails came from two posts on the Huffington Post's style blog and a Washington Post Style piece that grappled with whether we ought to be talking about Michele Bachmann's nails at all.) In methodological terms, there was another glaring problem with the study: It never tested how voters would respond to descriptions of the hypothetical male candidate's appearance. It simply took as a given that women are the only candidates whose looks are routinely examined.

Two political scientists, Danny Hayes of George Washington University and Jennifer Lawless of American University, sought to test the premise in what they believed to be a more rigorous manner. They did their own poll, gauging respondents' reactions to positive, neutral, and negative descriptions of both a male and a female candidate. (They also gave their imaginary candidates identical biographies; the Name It Change It study's male and female subjects had different backgrounds, though voters viewed them about the same before the appearance test.) They found that there was no gender-based difference in how voters responded to the descriptions. Voters reacted negatively to a candidate described as "disheveled and sloppy" whether it was a man or a woman, and actually penalized men more for such judgments. "When Susan Williams and Michael Stevenson are described similarly -- whether in neutral, positive, negative, or no appearance terms -- their favorability ratings are indistinguishable from each other," the authors wrote.

Well, fine, you might think, but we all know only women are subjected to this kind of scrutiny; we don't live in a world where men and women are equally judged for their fashion choices. But in fact, there are plenty of examples of coverage of the appearance of men in politics. It's practically a requirement that any profile of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders describe his "unruly hair"; Mitt Romney, and John Edwards before him, frequently had his perfect coif cited as evidence of phoniness. When Paul Ryan was announced as Romney's running mate, his ill-fitting suits and chiseled abs were dual objects of fascination. And then there's Chris Christie's girth, "whose fluctuations garner almost as much attention as the Consumer Price Index," as Hayes and Lawless put it.

This is all anecdotal, but Hayes and Lawless have also sought to examine this question more systematically. In 2010, they examined more than 4,000 articles about congressional races in 350 districts; just 4 percent of the stories, they found, mentioned a candidate's appearance, and women were just as likely as men to be described in such terms.

Name It Change It has now issued an angry response to Hayes and Lawless, demanding to see the full data on which the political scientists' conclusions are based. (The paper based on Hayes and Lawless's study hasn't yet been published, but they wrote a blog post for the Washington Post about their findings.) Among other things, Name It Change It objects to the coverage study's examination of local newspaper articles, on the basis that "there is more sexist coverage in cable TV." Meanwhile, Name It Change It continues to point out instances of what it sees as an unequal focus on women's appearance, most recently decrying the many mentions of Texas state Senator Wendy Davis's pink tennis shoes. (The first line of a Politico story about the male Senator Rand Paul's filibuster in March: "He had no plan, the wrong shoes, and no water.")

Hayes and Lawless's work joins a growing body of political-science research that finds that being female isn't a disadvantage in politics. Voters' opinions of candidates seem to hinge on ideology and party affiliation, not gender, the research has found. In fact, many political consultants these days consider a woman candidate a plus, and Dartmouth researcher Deborah Jordan Brooks has found some evidence that's the case, as I wrote in the May issue of The Atlantic. Brooks, who wants to see more female representation in politics, fears that an emphasis on the obstacles women face when they seek office, in addition to being poorly founded, ends up discouraging them from running.

All this back-and-forth -- I will certainly not call it a catfight -- reminded me of a searing scene in a piece Nora Ephron wrote in 1972 and included in her book Crazy Salad. Ephron joined Gloria Steinem -- one of the founders of the Name It Change It project, and at the time an adviser to Democratic nominee George McGovern -- as she left her Miami hotel and walked to a meeting:

... on the way out of the Doral, Bob Anson, a former Time reporter, who interviewed her for a McGovern profile, says hello.

"At some point I'd like to talk to you about the socks," Gloria says.

"What do you mean?" asks Anson.

"You said in that article that I give him advice about socks and shirts. I don't talk to him about things like that. He listens to men about clothes."

Anson apologizes, claims he had nothing to do with the error, and as we leave the hotel, I suggest to Gloria that such incorrect facts stem from a kind of newsmagazine tidbit madness.

"That's not it," says Gloria. "It's just that if you're a woman, all they can think about your relationship with a politician is that you're either sleeping with him or advising him about clothes." We start walking up Collins Avenue, past lettuce-boycott petitioners and welfare-rights pamphleteers. "It's just so difficult," she says, crying now. I begin babbling -- all the pressures on you, no private life, no sleep, no wonder you're upset. "It's not that," says Gloria. "It's just that they won't take us seriously."

It's important that we don't allow women in politics to be belittled the way Steinem once was, by assuming they're more concerned with fashion or recipes than matters of policy. (Incidentally, Brooks' research finds women politicians aren't judged more negatively than men for crying.) But we have gone from a world in which Hillary Rodham Clinton strove to conform to gender norms by wearing headbands and baking cookies to one where she proudly declares herself a "pantsuit aficionado." 

The evidence doesn't support declaring any descriptive writing about female candidates off-limits, and it undermines the credibility of groups like Name It Change It when they see everything through the lens of insidious but invisible biases. Journalists should be scrutinized for whether they're covering women candidates fairly and seriously, but we shouldn't be banned from noticing the carefully managed visual signals candidates of both sexes send. Sometimes, a skirt suit is just a skirt suit.

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Molly Ball is a staff writer covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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