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.
No 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.