Kagan and “lookism”

With the Kagan hearings going full blast, time for an overdue post on how the fact that she is clearly below average in physical attractiveness affects coverage of her.  Suffice it to say, I’m pretty confident it is worse to be an unattractive female in the public eye than an unattractive male.

First, an essay by Robin Blumner on right-wing pundits using her appearance as the basis of personal attacks:

It was inevitable that Elena Kagan’s physical appearance would become fodder for critics of her nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. The solicitor general, a woman of remarkable professional achievement, still is, after all, a woman. Even in 2010, 50 years after the stultifying “Mad Men” era, a woman’s looks are part of her résumé…

Yet, by harping on the fact that she fails to come across as classically feminine, the right hints that she must be a radical feminist or a lesbian, neither of which Kagan has given any indication of being.

The corollary to this is the Sarah Palin phenomenon – a woman whose great looks have earned her a place as an opinion-maker, despite demonstrable intellectual limits. During Palin’s vice presidential campaign, her makeup artist was the highest-paid person on her staff, and she famously spent a fortune on clothes. As it turns out, this was exactly the right investment, much more important than schooling Palin on domestic and foreign policy. Somehow her beauty magically transforms the mash of incoherence she spouts into pearls of wisdom for supporters.

Over at the Atlantic, Wendy Kaminer likewise picks up on the Kagan-Palin duality:

What do Elena Kagan and Sarah Palin have in common?  They each offer complementary cautionary tales about the continuing appeal of an ersatz, “Sex in the City” feminism that rewards beauty and punishes plainness with all the subtlety and compassion of a Playboy centerfold.  Kagan’s appearance and fashion sense are mocked or savaged, especially but not exclusively by pundits on the right, following a familiar script.  Hillary Clinton and Janet Napolitano endured similar hazings.  Sarah Palin, to say the least, did not.

And lastly, this all reminded me of Emily Bazelon’s really interesting book review of The Beauty Bias.   The author is a Stanford University law professor who makes the case that we need to increasingly use the law to remedy cases of appearance discrimination:

The Constitution bars discrimination on the basis of race, sex, religion, national origin and ethnicity. By contrast, only the state of Michigan and six locales — the District of Columbia; Santa Cruz, Calif.; Madison, Wis.; Urbana, Ill.; and Howard County, Md., along with San Francisco — have laws that protect against appearance discrimination…

But Rhode insists that she’s not conjuring up an overlawyered world in which aspiring models sue for losing work. She would allow businesses to select employees based on appearance in the same way they can legally select on the basis of sex: if it’s a “bona fide occupational qualification” for the job.

Rhode is also ready to concede that “on the reform agenda of women’s rights advocates, appearance does not deserve top billing.” She just wants to talk about the perils of high heels and weight requirements along with the wage gap. Ladies, think about it the next time your feet ache.

Certainly an interesting idea from a feminist perspective, as women are surely discriminated against on the basis of their looks more so than men, but this strikes me as an ultimately losing cause.  To a considerable degree, I think you are working against human nature here.  I seem to recall studies that show even newborn infants have a built-in preference for more attractive faces.  Not to suggest that this is any rational basis for discrimination, but it is the world we live in.

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About Steve Greene
Professor of Political Science at NC State http://faculty.chass.ncsu.edu/shgreene

2 Responses to Kagan and “lookism”

  1. codecrackx15 says:

    Who cares what she looks like? The fact that she has absolutely ZERO experience and nothing to qualify her for the position is all that anyone should need. 16 months as a lawyer does make her qualified in any way shape or form.
    I do like that she had said people who go through confirmation need to answer the questions and now here she is dancing around every issue. At least we know that if confirmed she is a hypocrite.

    • Steve Greene says:

      The media seems to care what she looks like. I would not call zero experience as a judge, zero experience. There can be absolutely no doubt the woman knows her way around Constitutional Law. I think there’s an interesting argument as to whether a Justice needs to have been a judge or not, but if one accepts the latter, Kagan is certainly well qualified. And you are surely right on the hypocrisy front. A shame, but sadly inevitable with what contemporary confirmations have devolved to.

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