Is it an election or a beauty contest?

Breaking news in the 2008 US Presidential election:  someone has taken an unflattering photograph of Hillary Clinton! The Washington Post reports:

Call them the “hangdog” candidate photographs: They capture the politician with eyes downcast, looking tired, stressed. When the headline is about poll numbers dropping, fundraising tanking or verbal gaffes from soon-to-be-cashiered campaign advisers, the hangdog candidate image is sure to make its appearance.

Hillary Clinton lined faceNo matter that the candidate is saying he or she isn’t concerned about the bad news. No matter that they’re still smiling, they still feel confident, they can still point to positive poll numbers in this state or that. The grim-faced photograph confirms the suggestion, in the story it illustrates, that the campaign is imploding. …

The popular Drudge Report Web site recently ran a particularly notorious picture of Hillary Clinton, showing her face riven with deep furrows and wrinkles. She looked so awful that even some conservative commentators noted the unfairness of using such a manifestly unflattering image.

But the hangdog photograph isn’t just unflattering. … The hangdog image conveys a single, tight visual message:  fatigue, sadness, impotence.

I wonder:  is it more than that in this instance? Is the photo particularly damaging for Hillary Clinton because Hillary is a woman?

Maybe that’s not fair. The Post doesn’t raise Hillary’s sex for discussion. They think any candidate would be treated the same way, and suffer the same consequences.

But I’m not so sure. It is a grave weakness of democracy that elections are so much about image. I think Hillary Clinton is particularly at risk because she’s a woman. Everyone knows it’s OK for a man to show his age:  a lined face is a sign of character. But for a woman, to look anything other than youthful is always a demerit.

And it’s completely phony, nothing but media manipulation. News media handpick photographs which reflect the narrative the reporter is trying to tell. As a result:

The hangdog image — and its opposite, the smiling, confident, top-dog image — also suggests a seamlessness between the news of the campaign trail and the candidate’s emotional state. In many ways, it reduces politicians to cartoons who seem to be dancing mindlessly to the tune of the polls, now frowning and moping, now giddy and upbeat. It also suggests that the media play an intimate role in this dance, piping the tune. In fact, the one thing the media almost never gain access to is the real emotional life of politicians.

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4 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. McSwain
    Dec 27, 2007 @ 21:28:50

    I don’t like Hillary Clinton, not one bit–but I don’t like this either. The story that ran with it on Drudge asked if America was ready, not for a woman in office, but to watch a woman age in office. What a sad commentary on our society.

    Reply

  2. MaryP
    Dec 28, 2007 @ 09:01:37

    … because women aren’t allowed to age.

    Sickening. Literally.

    Reply

  3. Random
    Dec 29, 2007 @ 15:19:34

    “I wonder: is it more than that in this instance? Is the photo particularly damaging for Hillary Clinton because Hillary is a woman?”

    Just a thought, but is there any evidence at all that this has actually damaged her? I have to say that apart from the fact she looks like she’s (a) wearing too much make-up and (b) seems to be being strangled by her scarf, she looks perfectly normal for a 60 year old woman to me. Okay, she ain’t Sharon Stone, but I rather doubt that’s what the American people are looking for.

    As for whether a man would be treated this way – I bet if the media had a picture of John McCain looking old and tired they’d run with it, and I believe it’s true that Rudy’s people are living in dread of pictures of the candidate in a dress emerging (the religious right would just love that).

    I think this has got very little to do with her being a woman, and a lot more to do with the media narrative, and the narrative at the moment is that Hillary is rattled and desperate at Obama’s increasing support. This picture is getting play because it fits in with the narrative , just as my hypotheticals above would fit with with the is-McCain-too-old and is-Rudy-too-liberal narratives.

    Reply

  4. nebcanuck
    Dec 29, 2007 @ 17:42:26

    Heh, to be quite honest, I don’t think that the image is that unflattering, either. Compare it to any number of pictures of Stephen Harper or Paul Martin, and it wouldn’t be the odd one out, by me.

    However, the simple fact that it’s a female image that begins this kind of debate certainly suggests to be that there is more acceptance of aging men in the media. I’ve never heard anyone comment on how the media misuses a picture of a Prime Minister or a President, regardless of how flattering or unflattering it is. And there have been many “hangdog images” over the years that have made men look old and defeated.

    However, I would go so far as to say that it’s not just the fact that men are allowed to age; It’s the fact that they are allowed to escape their image. I think partly it’s rooted in the fact that women genuinely appreciate looking “good” more than men, but that doesn’t capture the whole story. The media is far less willing to overlook a woman looking “bad” than a man, to the extent that there is no escape for the woman. It goes right back to that picture of Jessica Valenti that you posted on so long ago. Regardless of how much women concern themselves with looks, they surely do not wish to be held to looking perfect at every single moment.

    That’s what’s going on in this Washington Post article. The media is getting up in arms about people making Hilary look bad… of proving she’s human. They would never get upset over someone proving Chretien’s humanity, but Hilary cannot be shown in any unflattering manner… The light, positive or negative, is really inconsequential to me.

    Reply

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