Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Pretty Stupid

A new study to be published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology entitled "Objectifying Sarah Palin: Evidence that Objectification Causes Women to be Perceived as Less Competent and Less Fully Human" offers some interesting food for thought regarding how the lens of objectification affects perceptions of women's competence in social contexts. Much of the psychological research on objectification I have dealt with previously deals with the effect of objectification and self-objectification upon women's experiences of themselves, while this study provides insight into the social consequences of being a woman who is treated like a living doll.

Nathan A. Heflick and Jamie L. Goldenberg of the University of South Florida hypothesized that focusing on a woman’s appearance will promote reduced perceptions of competence, and also, by virtue of construing the women as an “object,” perceptions of the woman as less human. To test the hypothesis, Heflick and Goldenberg took a group of 133 undergraduates and assigned them to write a few lines about one of two celebrities: vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin or actress Angelina Jolie. Half of the participants in each category were asked to write “your thoughts and feelings about this person,” while the other half were asked to write “your thoughts and feelings about this person’s appearance.” The participants were then asked to rate their subject (Palin or Jolie) in terms of various attributes, including competence.

The resulting findings largely confirmed the theory: Those who wrote about Palin’s appearance were more positive in their assessments than those who assessed her qualities as a person, but they rated her far lower in terms of competence, intelligence, and capability, and were far less likely to indicate they planned to vote for the McCain-Palin ticket. The study suggests that their confidence in her abilities may have decreased the more they focused on her looks.

I find this particular line of research to be intriguing, especially considering the media's proclivity to sexualize any woman who comes even close to having authority over cultural and social structures. Michelle Obama, a Harvard-educated lawyer and phenomenally successful professional who has the power to change the way that we see blackness and womanhood in America forever, is reduced to her "right to bare arms" and populist fashion choices. Despite my love-hate relationship with her over the years, Katie Couric is an established journalist whose spectacular legs should not have to be featured in every profile article about her from the election. And let's not even get started with the ball-busting and castrating nature that was ascribed to Hillary Clinton from the time she entered the public eye for daring to wear gender-neutral pant suits and not openly advertising her fuckability.

One by one, any woman in American political life who dares to make a place for herself in the power structure is subjected to the same horrifying body dissection and hotness assessment ritual that every Hollywood actress and musician must endure. It is very telling that our media culture, and therefore its consumers, see politicians and pop stars through the same lens of objectification. It doesn't matter why you're famous - if you're a woman in the public eye, your body and how you inhabit it is fair game and, in fact, is usually the first thing about you held up to public scrutiny, not your background or your policy positions. So, if you're considering a political or high-profile business career, then I'd advise you to get ahead of the media curve and try to pre-manufacture your appearance for consumption. Here are your choices: frigid bitch, slutty ho, or mannish dyke. Don't like your options? Sorry, those are the only sterotypes for women the media's got in stock. And if you don't fit easily into any stereotype, then forget the whole prominence and fame thing. Either you fit the mold or we find someone else who will.

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