Seems not that long ago, I was grinding my teeth in frustration over the excessive attention given to Pelosi’s wardrobe choices, especially given that male politician’s looks and clothing are seldom probed for deeper meaning. I mean, it’s a guy in a suit. What else need be said? It seemed unfair to me that Pelosi came in for extra criticism (and extra praise, from some quarters) on something so utterly tangential to the actual job of setting a policy agenda for the House. Male politicians don’t have to deal with fluff pieces about the deeper meaning of their looks!
Well, be careful what you wish for. Because from the Edwards haircut brouhaha to Giulani’s various past appearances in, shall we say, less than conventionally male attire, male politicians are finally starting to experience a similar flavor of vapid scrutiny regarding their looks. Well, I suppose if we’re going to objectify, we might as well objectify everyone. Not that it feels like progress for reporters to dither over all the candidates’ looks instead of policy choices.
Yet even in this higly image-conscious election cycle, one contender comes in for a seemingly inordinate attention on the basis of appearance: Mitt Romney, whose sensational good looks have been compared to Adonis, seems to have charmed a number of media personalities not normally known for commenting on the attractiveness of male political figures.
At which point I find myself in desperate need of a reality check. Let’s keep things in perspective: Adonis? Please. He’s a middle aged white dude, not a male model. (Well, unless we’re talking about Sears catalog models; there, he might fit right in.)
While regularness of features is definitely a component of conventional notions of being handsome, there’s also something to be said for having a look that is distinctive. I don’t see that in Romney; he seems precisely like the type of Executive Ken doll you might find populating any number of corporate boardrooms. I fail to see what is so exceptional about his looks, unless it is that they’re exceptionally middle-of-the-road. Bland is the new hot? Sorry, I’m not buying it.
My hypothesis is that the main reason the GOP folks and their mainstream-media enablers are gushing over Romney’s looks is that he just happens to look so much better than the usual assortment of craggy, doughy troll dolls that the GOP regularly places on offer. Compared to the other GOP candidates, Romney really is a fox.
Compared to the Democratic candidates? Not such a fox. YMMV, but I wouldn’t rank him in the top three.
I’m well aware that I began by lamenting the state of politics in which we spend time obsessing over a candidate’s appearance, then proceeded to deconstruct the components of what I think make one particular candidate attractive (or unattractive) in various contexts. That’s not irony (intended or otherwise); it’s a reflection of what passes for political discourse today. Because our media saturation has reached the point where a candidate’s image is inextricably intertwined with his or her message, and indeed, the former can easily eclipse the latter. That’s because candidates aren’t just political entities; they’re branded, marketed, and sold to the public. Not only is the mainstream media ‘lookist’, they’re counting on our by-now-ingrained sense of lookism to shape the narrative of who and what these people stand for. It is much easier to toss off a quick soundbite about how a given candidate ‘looks’ or ‘feels’ presidential – whatever that means – than it is to dissect the politician’s various policy stands and examine them for an underlying since of a unified vision… or lack thereof, as the case may be.
Scratch the surface of any presidential candidate and you will find an ambitious person underneath. What remains to be seen is whether that person also happens to be prinicipled and authentic or else opportunistic and pandering. In this aspect, Romney has been attacked from the left and from the right regarding the seeming convenience with which he adopts or abandons various causes in proportion to the amount of political gain he might achieve thereby. Indeed, Romney’s appearance may be the one relatively unchanging aspect of his candidacy. No wonder those sympathetic to Romney spend so much time talking about his looks; it lets them avoid talking about a bunch of inconvenient stuff without seeming to contradict themselves repeatedly.
It’s far easier to sell the product when the packaging is pleasing, but the smart customer will wonder more about what’s inside.