Electoral Beauty Myths

It's OK to judge a politician's looks. Just don't confuse them with character.


Shortly after the election, I left on a book tour of Australia and New Zealand. So when Katherine Harris became a famous face, I didn't see her on television. My husband told me about her on the phone.

The Republicans, he said, had gotten a lucky break. The Florida secretary of state was attractive, too good-looking to be demonized like Linda Tripp.


Harris did of course get vilified, for her appearance as well as her politics. Instead of focusing on bad features or unattractive clothes—Tripp's faults—critics condemned her for wearing too much makeup. Wags compared her to a drag queen, Vampira, and Cruella de Vil. They drew on a centuries-old tradition that equates cosmetics with deception, decadence, and even witchcraft. A woman who wears a lot of makeup, they suggested, is not to be trusted. Washington Post fashion critic Robin Givhan famously pulled out all the metaphorical stops, writing that Harris' skin "had been plastered and powdered to the texture of pre-war walls in need of a skim coat." The secretary was clearly wearing false eyelashes, Givhan declared, so that "caterpillars seemed to rise and fall with every bat of her eyelid."

The response to such blistering commentary was outrage and condemnation. Conservatives blasted feminists for double standards that attack conservative women while protecting liberals. Feminists decried double standards that zap women while exempting men. The Post's own ombudsman wrote that "mocking someone's appearance is not something that newspapers should do."

Righteously upholding the idea that looks don't matter, these watchdogs all studiously ignored the embarrassing truth: Not only do human beings make judgments about how other people look, we enjoy doing so. We're not going to stop just because ombudsmen of various sorts tell us it's bad manners. And in an age where we see more and more good-looking people, either directly or through the media, we're getting more and more judgmental. When it comes to looks, double standards—of whatever variety—are disappearing.

Even as they bemoaned the emphasis on appearance, in fact, commentators gleefully used the opportunity to air their own pent-up judgments. "Warren Christopher wears handsome suits but otherwise looks like a deflated mix of Shar-Pei and beagle," wrote Andrea Billups of The Washington Times. Maryln Schwartz of the Dallas Morning News compared Christopher to a prune and Joe Lieberman to an elf; she mocked Strom Thurmond's orange hair plugs and told Dennis Hastert to go to Weight Watchers. Having released these attacks, Schwartz declared such slurs "too nasty, too vicious, too totally uncalled for." She claimed that people only say such mean things about women.

Al Gore might beg to differ. In his first debate with George W. Bush, Gore appeared in orange makeup applied thickly to cover a sunburn. He looked awful. Commentators compared him to Lurch from The Addams Family, "Herman Munster doing a bad Ronald Reagan impression," and "a big, orange, waxy, wickless candle." One columnist wrote that "it looked like he melted down orange circus peanuts and then asked Tammy Faye for a 'light' dusting." San Francisco Examiner television critic Tim Goodman landed one of the most quoted blows: "If you'd stuck him in a push-up bra and a sequin dress and had him sing show tunes, he'd have carried San Francisco in a landslide."

The vice president became The Man Who Wears Too Much Makeup. The label has endured as a trope of late-night comedians—"If Al Gore took off half his makeup and gave it to Warren Christopher, they'd both look a lot better," said Jay Leno recently—and as color for political journalists. This isn't just fun at the vice president's expense. Commentators treat Gore's pancake problem as if it has deeper significance. It makes him seem bumbling, unmanly, and, most of all, phony. "While Gore yammered about [the voters'] 'will,' it was clear to my houseplants that the man who looks like he raids Katherine Harris' pancake makeup supply was really gloating about the Florida Supreme Court decision in his favor," opined a disillusioned Gore voter in late November.

Harris' critics similarly seized on flaws in her appearance to indicate flaws in her character. The Post's Givhan interpreted Harris' fashionable blue eyeshadow as evidence that "she failed to think for herself" and declared that "one wonders how this Republican woman, who can't even use restraint when she's wielding a mascara wand, will manage to use it and make sound decisions in this game of partisan one-upmanship." By focusing on makeup as metaphor, Givhan could make political judgments without supporting them.

This is the trouble we get into when we declare mere appearance off-limits to serious commentary. Instead of admitting that how people look is interesting in and of itself—that writers and readers enjoy making aesthetic judgments about people—we strain for broader significance. We treat beauty as a sign of virtue and ugliness as a sign of vice. If Al Gore and Katherine Harris wear the wrong makeup, they cannot be trusted. If Paula Jones has a crooked nose and Monica Lewinsky is fat, they cannot be telling the truth. Conversely, if Hillary Clinton has a bad health care plan, she cannot have a lovely face.

It would be better for our public discussions, and our mental health, if we simply admitted that we care about how other people look—if we acknowledged that beauty has its own significance and does not need to be saddled with symbolism. Commentators could then opine on distracting makeup, crooked noses, and broad hips without forcing their aesthetic judgments to take on inappropriate moral weight. They could be honestly catty without pretending to be deep. If they wanted to add substance, they could stick to relevant considerations, such as how Harris' heavy, '80s-style makeup typifies women of her age, region, and social class. But respectable commentators could not get away with pretending that analyzing how people look can substitute for analyzing how they think or act.

Treating beauty as though it has moral significance is an anachronism. The idea of beauty as a value in and of itself—looks as just looks, as compelling surface without deeper meaning—is what the historian Arthur Marwick calls the "modern" idea of beauty. Traditional cultures assumed that good looks indicated good character. Think of the ugly step-sisters compared to beautiful, virtuous Cinderella.

Nowadays we see a fuller range of human looks—and of the human character that accompanies them—than people who lived before modern trade, travel, and communications media. We can thus judge both looks and character more stringently and more carefully, and we can separate the two. "Only when people have the opportunity to make choices and comparisions can they make a genuine evaluation of personal appearance," writes Marwick in his 1988 book, Beauty in History.

The emancipation of women, he argues, contributes to this process. More women become visible to a broad public, giving everyone a broader basis of comparison. And attractive women can make a living from their looks—whether directly as models or indirectly as saleswomen or newscasters—without trading sexual favors. "Women active in society offer enhanced opportunities for comparison and choice," Marwick concludes, "while at the same time women themselves begin to judge men as men had, prevailing orthodoxies notwithstanding, tended to judge women—by appearance."

Talking honestly about how public figures look certainly has its negative side. We already have high standards, pushed ever higher by the beautiful faces we see in the media. It's surely no accident that both presidential candidates, and the incumbent president, are unusually good looking. "Presidentially, the United States is now in a place called Hunksville," wrote Hank Stuever of The Washington Post's style section in a long disquisition on the politics of cuteness. Our demand for good looks, expressed in the biting comments that ensue when public figures fall short of perfection, puts enormous pressures on these individuals and may screen out the otherwise qualified. If video killed the radio star, it may also be doing away with the homely politician.

But denial won't work. Pretending we don't care how people look doesn't make us stop caring. It simply encourages us to equate good looks with other qualifications. Instead of treating beauty as one value among many, we come to treat it as the greatest value of all. It may not seem fair to treat looks as important. But it's far more fair than treating appearance as something more.