When It Comes to Compliments and Female Politicians, Discretion Is the Better Part of Valor

By Amanda Marcotte
Tuesday, April 9, 2013 13:32 EDT
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Updated so that graph is actually readable.

As you are all aware, there was a lot of whining in response to frankly mild-mannered (at least coming from feminists) critiques of President Obama making a fuss over Kamala Harris’s looks during a recent fundraising event. It’s the usual sexist response of accusing humorless feminists of blowing innocent remarks out of proportion, and I blogged at XX Factor about research into benevolent sexism that shows why the claims that it’s no big deal are mistaken.

Well, now we have even more research! Name It Change It, a group dedicated to ending sexism in politics so that more women will run for office, put out a short study they did gauging reactions to coverage of female politicians that focused on appearance. They showed potential voters descriptions of two hypothetical candidates and asked them how they’d vote based on the descriptions. The female candidate’s description varied in the descriptions. Some people got no physical description, some got a neutral one, some a positive one that focused on how attractive she is, and a negative one that implied she’s ugly. Here are the results:

The research was conducted by Celinda Lake, so we’re talking about a reputable group with well-established methodologies. As you can see here, the hit that the female politician took was enough that it could lose her the election. That was true regardless of the positive/negative connotations of the description. They did find, however, that by speaking out against it, the female politician regained lost ground.

Obviously, in a real campaign, things are a lot more complicated than this and there are a lot more factors. That’s why studies like this are conducted the way they are, to help isolate certain effects. But it’s hard to deny that reminding voters of sexist traditions that relegate women to passive, decorative roles hurts female politicians’ reputations in their eyes. As such, it’s a practice best avoided.

I did a little experiment of my own, albeit one that was less rigorous. Since so many men were upset upon hearing that it would be best if they kept their observations about the physical assets of others out of professional situations, I asked on Twitter if anyone could explain to me exactly what men stand to lose by keeping their opinions to themselves. I got three responses:

1) Sarcastic pro-feminist people saying things like keeping power in men’s hands or making women uncomfortable for fun.

2) People who claimed that inappropriate compliments are critical for the wellbeing of compliment-dependent women.

3) The inevitable “free speech” hollers.

The second one clearly is not an answer to my question, since I asked what men stand to lose, and not about women supposedly being deprived of compliments offered by their colleagues and bosses. Punting blame to women is a standard sexist trope in these situations, so there was some confusion when I pointed this out. The third is entirely predictable, and it’s worth pointing out that the expectation of good manners is not, by any stretch of the imagination, an actual assault on free speech. Discretion is the better part of valor, gents. No one is saying that you can’t talk like you’re at a party  in professional situations with people who could choose not to hire you in the future. We just wish to know why that’s the hill you’d prefer to die on.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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