Looksism Takes Center Stage in Presidential Politics

If you are a woman, you may have been subjected to the following scenario: You are deep in thought, pondering something serious (and minding your own business) when a complete stranger addresses you and tells you to “smile.” Can you imagine such an interaction with the sexes reversed? No, probably not, because men, it turns out, are given more room to express a range of expressions without comment or criticism.

Hillary Clinton, as the first woman running for president, has been subject to endless scrutiny of face, expressions, hair, weight, and, yes, ankles. It’s no wonder she wears pantsuits, if only to shut down the endless sniping about her “cankles”! But the facial expression issue has real consequences, according to Lisa Feldman Barrett, a professor of psychology at Northeastern University, and the author of the forthcoming How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain.

Dr. Barrett and her colleagues did research showing that when women’s faces exhibit emotion, observers attribute it to an internal state, whereas in men, attribution is made to an external event. She’s looking annoyed because she’s a cranky person, in other words, whereas he is showing irritation because something or someone is bothering him. The research team put it this way: “She’s a bitch, but he’s just having a bad day.” These kinds of attribution factors can have consequences that are literally fatal: Women in emergency rooms are more likely than men to be judged as suffering from anxiety when they are actually having a cardiac emergency. Barrett reports that, “This is a major reason that women die more frequently of heart attacks than men do.” 

When Clinton is giving a speech in a stern voice, rather than perceiving her as “presidential,” some judge her as cold or angry. A stern or even angry-sounding man is more often thought to be responding appropriately to an outrageous “situation.” And so, with this background in mind, Hillary Clinton was widely expected to have a bigger challenge than her opponent in a debate, despite the certainty that she is more prepared to discuss substantive issues.

Given this research, it seemed to me that a woman’s best gambit in a debate with a man would be to pretend that she was at a “tea party” and smile graciously throughout. Perhaps Mrs. Clinton read about it too, because that seemed to be close to her strategy on Tuesday night. The split screen offered a striking contrast of the two candidates: He was huffing and puffing and scowling while her most expressive look was an ironic smile.

Consider the following: What if their behavior had been reversed, and Clinton has scowled, interrupted, sniffled, and groaned? Given what we know about the different standards that women are held to, I can only imagine the attacks that would be forthcoming. But despite her calm demeanor and pleasant façade, some fear that she will fall short of convincing voters that she is “warm” or “likeable” — a requirement, it seems, for female candidates.

On MSNBC’s program “Morning Joe” on Tuesday, co-host Mika Brzezinski, who openly supports the Democratic ticket, said: “I think, probably, we all think Hillary won. But my blood pressure kept going up throughout the whole thing — I could not stop watching until the very end because there was something that was telling me he’s going to do quite well out of this, and I can’t quite put my finger on it.” What she can’t put her finder on is the problem she regularly runs into on her program: male panelists, including her co-host Joe Scarborough, routinely talk over her, interrupt her, and ignore her comments. I have sometimes wondered if the “he said, she said” routine, in which he regularly comes out on top, isn’t part of the show’s appeal. It mimics what many women experience all the time.

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  • Barbara McDowell Whitt October 22, 2016 at 11:46 am

    Dr. Cecilia M. Ford, I found your excellent essay via @womensvoices on Twitter where the site has posted a beautiful photo of Hillary (and there I couldn’t help myself – I used a “b” word which she deserves). With it is the word “looksism” which, in a search, linked directly to your essay. On July 14 when Tim Kaine spoke with Hillary at a rally in Virginia, I was able to tell her, over a bunting, “I’m very eager for you to be our first woman president.” She said “Well thank you very much for that.” She’s warm and sweet. During Kaine’s remarks I appreciated the opportunity to observe Hillary observing Kaine and during her remarks I appreciated the chance to see her “up close.” Something I like about her is that she has learned not to nod her head when a line she has spoken is well received by her audience. It frustrates me that so often the media tend to say “Trump and Clinton” rather than “Clinton and Trump.” As we know, “Clinton” comes before “Trump” alphabetically. Fortunately, our society maintains the phrase “Ladies and Gentlemen.” A gentleman Trump is not. A lady Hillary is.

  • Diane Dettmann October 11, 2016 at 10:15 am

    Thank you Dr. Ford for posting this article. For me, this presidential campaign has been painful to follow. The negativity drains the desire to vote out of me. I keep reading articles about the candidates and watching the debates with hopes of clarifying my selection for the next president of the United States. On election day, I hope to walk into the voting booth as an informed citizen, cast my vote and pray that the candidate most qualified to lead our country is elected.

  • Sheryl Carrubba October 2, 2016 at 12:34 am

    I too liked this essay. It is on point regarding the view of women of strength being held to a different standard. I passionately hope that Secretary Clinton is successful. I believe she is flawed … as we all are … but her flaws are nothing compared to the racist, bigoted, narcissist running against her. The fact that the race is tight, that his behavior is excused, that he has such a following has been a really big eye opener for me. I am deeply troubled by his popularity. My rose colored glasses are off … we have a lot of work to do as a nation.

  • Amy Hughes September 30, 2016 at 8:30 am

    Thank you for this thought-provoking essay, and especially for bringing in the research about the “she’s a bitch/he’s having a bad day” dichotomy. I had not heard before that this is linked to more women dying of heart attacks then men. Stunning and disturbing.

  • Holly September 30, 2016 at 7:31 am

    In my opinion this election has highlighted many of men’s very worst attitudes about women: their value depends on their looks, they have to please men, and an ambitious woman is a bitch. Also, I am so TIRED of people pretending that Hillary’s flaws are in some way equivalent to Trump’s. Talk about stamina: she has endured withering attacks for 30 years and he crumpled in one night!

  • Leslie in Oregon September 30, 2016 at 4:30 am

    Thank you, Dr. Ford, for this articulate and insightful essay on the unfortunate role that misogyny is playing in this campaign. I applaud Secretary Clinton for the battles she has fought throughout her adult life, on behalf of decency and compassion, including her advocacy for women. I was rendered speechless last spring when a person who is the best medical practitioner I’ve ever encountered told me that although she will not vote for Mr. Trump, neither will she vote for Ms. Clinton…because Ms. Clinton did not leave her husband after the Lewinsky affair. Let us hope that wisdom prevails on Election Day!

  • Cecilia Ford September 29, 2016 at 5:45 pm

    I appreciate your comment and I think it’s true that both candidates have been heavily scrutinized and criticized. And I agree that it is unfortunate that sexism has taken such a big role in the election when we have many serious issues to discuss. But it is an important subject, too, and one worth talking about.
    Dr. Ford

  • Mary Ackerman September 29, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    I doubt this will get posted as none of my others have because if you disagree here I guess it is not allowed however I would like to submit that her opponent gets mega criticism for ever movement he makes so stop advancing the sexism meme, especially with regards to Hillary as there are so many other more important reasons to scrutinize her