Archive for June 5th, 2009

Another fabulous guest poster, just in time for election day! Aoife B of Sweet Oblivion asks why an election has become a beauty contest – for female candidates only.

“I don’t think I’ll vote,” he announced loudly. “But if I do, I’ll vote for her, ‘cos she’s the best looking.” Sitting on a bus in Kildare one afternoon last week, I found myself listening to a group of men of varying ages chatting about the local elections. Talk had turned to who the best looking female candidates were and as I eavesdropped from a few seats away I heard one man say the above about Fine Gael candidate Emma Kiernan.
Kiernan, a young woman in her twenties, had recently found herself in the national news thanks to a photograph on Facebook of her messing about with friends ending up in the hands of the press.
As the bus trundled through Naas and into Newbridge, the faces of smiling – and in some cases, grimacing – election candidates whipped past us on eye-level posters.
With just over a week to go to the elections, it was only natural to assume that conversations around the country would be occupied by the fate of local candidates. But to hear that people were voting – if they voted at all – for female candidates based solely on their looks felt so depressingly unsurprising to me that it made me wonder if I was one of the only people to be bothered by this.
One of my first thoughts this year on looking at the local election posters in my area was: ‘There are loads of women!’ For the first time it really felt like there was a high representation of women running as candidates, and it felt great that so many of them were young women like myself. But I soon had the sinking feeling that it wouldn’t be long before the attractiveness of these women’s features was discussed, rather than the attractiveness of their policies.
Type in ‘best looking’ into Google and what is the first suggested option to come up? ‘best looking female politicians’. The second? ‘Best looking politicians’. The third? ‘Best looking women’. It’s certainly not just Kildare commuters who are concerned about how attractive their local politicians are. And to me, it’s just another way to show that women are too often judged on their outside appearance, on how good-looking or sexy they are, before their opinions, policies or anything else are considered. It happens in so many other areas, why should it not happen with politics too?
Part of my struggle with this is that I recognise that as human beings it is natural for us to be attracted to people and to size up potential mates. Personally, I wouldn’t expect people to look at someone and never, however momentarily, decide if they find them attractive or not. But when their attractiveness takes precedence over whatever else they stand for, and when it becomes about how ‘foxy’ a candidate is, and not how suitable for the job they are that gets most attention, then I feel distinctly uncomfortable. Particularly when it’s made out to be a perfectly natural question.
Boylesports, by the way, are the ones responsible for this ‘foxy’ idea – they conducted a poll into who the ‘foxiest’ candidates are in the current elections. But the most revealing thing wasn’t who they picked – it was the fact that 43% of respondents said they believe a candidate’s appearance would influence their voting decision; meanwhile, more than a third said they would vote for someone solely based on how they looked.
Is this what modern politics is about? Or is it all just fluffy propaganda created to ‘sex up’ the elections? While I don’t believe that the majority of people, male or female, would enter the polling booth determined to only vote for the best looking candidates, I do think that with the influx of female candidates this year there’s been far more of an emphasis on their looks than in previous years.
Some of the factors contributing to that of course have to include that the great majority of these women are young, fresh-faced and would be considered conventionally attractive.
Then perhaps for some there’s the ‘novelty’ factor – women are woefully underrepresented in Irish politics, with only 13% of Dáil members being female, and this new generation of young women is bound to be of interest to voters and journalists.
But at the end of the day, does all this talk about how ‘foxy’ a female candidate is translate into votes? Is there the chance that those who think these young women are attractive also think that they would be incapable of making serious political decisions? Is it the age-old question of whether people see female candidates as either good looking or intelligent – and does this have anything to do with the lack of women in Irish politics?
According to a recent article in the Irish Examiner: [http://examiner.ie/text/ireland/snmhkfcwoj/]“Studies by the Northwestern University based on the 2006 US congressional elections, showed that [a] woman’s chance of getting voted in depended on the perception of their competence combined with their attractiveness. This compares with male candidates where perception of competence is the main factor with attractiveness a significantly lesser consideration.”
If this study is to be believed, then female candidates do have to straddle the line between being perceived as attractive and intelligent.
We may be living in an age when women in Ireland have more freedom and rights than we have ever had, but there is a distinct gender imbalance in the Government that runs our country.
My own hope would be that following the local elections and into the next general election, because of the higher rate of female candidates women will become far more of a presence in Irish politics. And as more women enter the political game, perhaps we will have a more diverse representation of women holding political power.
But the emphasis needs to be taken off what these women look like and put onto what good they can do for us and our country. Let’s do the opposite to what the commuter I overheard in Kildare did, and take them at more than just face value.

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