Thursday, May 27, 2010

The Politics of Appearance

An interesting article here on The Atlantic Web site about beauty standards for women, Elena Kagan, Sarah Palin, etc. Worth a read. I was especially struck, however, by a comment made by a reader who asked when we have last elected someone who looked like William Howard Taft:

A very interesting point. Many scholars (including, in some respects, myself) have argued that Kennedy was the first president to successfully run on a politics of image. This is not to suggest that image and physical features did not color politics before the television age; James Madison was mercilessly heckled for his diminutive stature, and there is a reason why we have the term "Napoleon complex." Still, there were significant advantages to an era when truly meaningful attributes could trump the irrelevant importance of physical attractiveness.

Individuals who listened to radio broadcasts of the first presidential debate between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960 believed Nixon won, hands-down. Those who watched it on television preferred the well-coifed Democrat over the recently ill, underweight Nixon by a large margin. Leaving Nixon's future escapades aside, and regardless of one's opinion of Kennedy's actions as president, this seems an early indication of something going horribly wrong.

As humans, we are always going to make imperfect judgments, and our opinions will change over time. It bears repeating, however, that the physical attributes we laud now will change dramatically over the centuries:

Woman With a Mirror, c. 1640, Peter Paul Rubens

Seems a lot more sensible to do our thinking through our ears, so to speak, and judge based upon the content of candidates' arguments.

Taft image from Wikipedia Commons. Rubens image from


Gregorio said...

I love your content and the insights you provide from all of your studies. Keep it coming, I feel like I am taking a really interesting and well-taught course in American History!

Jason said...

I don't know how he compares to Taft, but Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey received some negative coverage about his weight when he ran for office, but went on to win. And Mike Huckabee famously lost over 110 pounds as governor of Arkansas. Perhaps weight is now only a barrier for federal office?

Laura Gifford said...

An interesting point, Jason. We were watching Jim Lehrer last night and the whatever-his-title-is of Plaquemines Parish was on... distinctly Taftesque. The mayor of Portland, however, was ribbed a while back for putting on weight in the midst of several personal and political problems. Perhaps it is a barrier at the federal level, and beyond that depends upon region. I think there are some significant gender disparities, also.

Sara™ said...

Good point Laura, while it may be more acceptable for a male to be overweight or considered 'unattractive' and in the public eye, I would argue that it is a different story for a female in the political or entertainment world to carry the extra weight or be 'unattractive' without becoming the subject of significant debate and ridicule. Think of the fashion icons of the political arena - Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis and Michelle Obama versus women respected for their great influence on politics and society, such as Eleanor Roosevelt, who might not have been as readily accepted and embraced today simply due to her appearance.

Much of our culture, be it entertainment or politically based, is so focused on image aspects of the person or candidate in question that it makes me wonder where we would be as a society if this was not such an influential factor? Would we be better off or in the same place we are now?