Media Twist Academic Study to Fit Sexist Frame

Politics is not a beauty pageant. But the media can’t stop framing it like one; especially when women are involved.

A study recently published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, with the barn-burner of a title, “Appearance-based politics: Sex-typed facial cues communicate political party affiliation,” suggested one can determine whether a woman’s heart beats with Democrats or Republicans just by looking at her face.

Kerri Johnson, an assistant professor of communication studies and psychology, and graduate student Colleen Carpinella, determined Republican women have more stereotypically feminine facial features. Johnson suggested they call it “the Michele Bachmann effect.”

The authors, both of UCLA, began by feeding 434 pictures of members of the 111th House of Representatives into a computer modeling program measuring how much the details of any one face approach the average for either gender. Then they tested their theory on politically uninformed undergraduates who were able to determine political affiliation with an overall accuracy rate that exceeded chance.

But according to the media, this academic study is nothing more than a political beauty contest, complete with sexist bipartisan stereotypes. And several media outlets were quick to retell a familiar story.

The Daily Caller wrote “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder; specifically the conservative beholder.” Their story was accompanied with a slideshow of smiling Republican women. Entertainment editor Taylor Bigler took creative liberties claiming “conservative women are more likely than liberal politicians to have the feminine features that people find attractive.”

But the authors of the study would disagree. Colleen Carpinella told Name It. Change It.: 

I have been deeply disappointed at the recent misrepresentation of my work in several media outlets. The original aim of the research was to determine how people make party affiliation judgments by specifying the critical role of gendered facial appearance. I did not include a measure of attractiveness in my studies.

Yet attractiveness is exactly how her study keeps being presented.

Rush Limbaugh told listeners, “There’s a fascinating new study out that says Democrat women are more likely to look like men,” which he then put their attractiveness to the test.

Okay, Michele Bachmann or Barbara Mikulski?  Point proven?  Okay.  Uh, let’s see, Sarah Palin or Big Sis, Janet Napolitano? Hmmm. Okay, give me another conservative woman.

After a few more examples in an on air game of “Hot or Not” Limbaugh ended the segment saying:

Ann Coulter or Hillary Clinton? (chuckling) You want to keep going here?  We’re trying to establish here the scientific points made by these two psychologists at UCLA.

Limbaugh’s misuse of academic research, which he twisted into a sexist message is exactly the problem of our current media culture.

Certain members of the media were willing to twist academic research in order to fit an established mold sexist frame. And it wasn’t just the usual suspects.

The Daily Beast sent staff writer Allison Yarrow to the streets, where the study was immediately taken out of context. The piece began:

A UCLA study surveying women in Congress claims that women with stereotypically feminine features tend to be Republicans.

After dropping the important word “facial,” the Daily Beast proceeded to distort Johnson and Carpinella’s findings entirely. Video footage showed the sidewalk poll centered on personal style rather than cheekbone placement.

Even more frustrating, The Atlantic Wire summarized the study like this:

Put simply, the “Michele Bachmann Effect” stipulates that Republican women are usually pretty and Democrat women are usually ugly.

Further down the blog roll, Lindy West’s headline for Jezebel said it all. “Hot or Not: Why Conservative Women Are ‘Prettier’ Than Liberal Ladies” perfectly demonstrated the communication breakdown between the research and the media.

Once she defined “pretty” and “conventionally attractive,” West sounded a battle cry for liberal women who were supposedly too busy for self-maintenance. As she insisted conservatives keep their “hot,” it became clear that this was a hot-button issue which seemed to embody internalized ideas that women on the left compromise their overall femininity.

Again, the study only referred to facial features. The media’s running theme is indicative of a well-known conversation concerning women and politics.

Much like Carpinella shared her concern with Name It. Change It., fellow researcher Kerri Johnson told the Huffington Post she noticed journalists making mistakes and said explicitly: “In no way did we measure facial attractiveness.”

When academia is misinterpreted by the media, the word feminine becomes pretty, and then pretty becomes hot, and then the World Net Weekly publishes a headline reading “Hubba, Hubba! GOP Women Better Looking?”

There are 18 women running for the Senate, 163 are running for House seats, and this is your lady news? Photos of women positioned like they were in a beauty pageant rather than a political race, asking readers to rate their looks? Attention media: you’re doing it wrong.


Published by Kate McCarthy on 10/10/2012

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