Republicans are Prettier than Democrats, and Other Lies Your Subconscious Tells You

Apparently our subconsciouses have never seen Michelle Obama dance with Beyonce is all I'm saying.

Oct 11, 2012 at 12:00pm | Leave a comment

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She may be pretty, but I still loathe her with the fire of a thousand suns. (Photo via Wikimedia Commons)

It’s getting to be the time of year when I vacillate wildly between being SUPER INTO the political climate and wanting to tear my own eyeballs out every time I see a sidebar ad asking me to give my thoughts on Prop 32 or whatever. It’s bad enough that Barack Obama keeps emailing me; now, I can’t even watch basic cable without being barraged with a flurry of shoddily made local political ads. 

I do try to stay as informed as possible about politics in my city, but when it comes to races like the local school board supervisor, I sometimes feel like I’m trying to pick favorite contestants on the world’s most stress-wrinkled, pant-suited Bravo reality show. 

“She’s got great hair,” my mom offered the other night as we waited for "Parks and Rec" to come back on at my parents’ house. From the TV set, the candidate in question grinned out at us, her conventionally attractive face framed by -- it must be said –- super blonde hair.

“Wonder if she paid taxes on it,” I snarked, then blinked at the TV. “Wait, she’s a Democrat?”

“Guess so,” my very apolitical mother shrugged. “Why?”

“I don’t know,” I said, feeling baffled despite myself. “She’s just…really pretty, I guess.”

Yes, this was a completely shallow assessment. But can you blame me? With all the Anns Romney and Coulter constantly hovering at the periphery of my vulnerable lady-subconscious, it’s no wonder that I find myself automatically equating “thin, blonde, has a bit of a velociraptor attitude” with being conservative. Men are harder, because I have trouble telling old white dudes apart from each other. When it comes to women, though, I’m often tempted to ascribe political leanings based on outward appearance.

And turns out, I’m not the only one. According to a recent UCLA study, women with more stereotypically “feminine” facial features were more likely to politically identify as conservative. Apparently, the difference is so stark that even rando undergraduates, when surveyed, were able to correctly identify politicians’ political affiliations based on the steeliness of their jaw-lines. 

Thus far, most people seem unsurprised about the news. Like I said above, lots of us have been conditioned to expect a certain look from conservative women – the family-friendly, gently femme, anti-Maddow aesthetic that just screams, “I’m two years and a poor English graduate student away from ‘writing’ a memoir called ‘LeviticUS: Your Kids and the Bible.’” You know. Pearls, unthreatening makeup, that whole shebang. Over at Jezebel, Lindy West points out a possible reason for this:

"You could argue that the conservative path is much friendlier to conventionally attractive women than it is to those with less "mainstream" looks. So is it any surprise that Republican women tend to read "pretty"? It's a much tougher path for the women who don't...Makeup, perfume, plastic surgery, blow-outs, pearls—these things, in our culture, represent "pretty." They represent "making an effort." Conservative women care more (or, at least, care differently), because they buy into the structure."

While I’m not disputing the fact that conservative politicians seem to be more often boxed into a “Cute vs. Not Cute” petition than their liberal counterparts, Lindy (as well as others covering the issue) misses a vital point: that in the study itself, scientists ignored all of the aesthetics that would normally act as “tells.”

Though I may rely on my "blonde = probable Republican" hypothesis pretty much on the daily (sorry, Mandy), scientists found that it’s a woman’s literal facial features –- the shape of her jaw line, the arch in her eyebrows, the height of her cheekbones –- that correlate with which political party she affiliates.

“We weren't looking at hairstyle, jewelry or whether a person was wearing makeup or not," the lead author told the UCLA Pressroom. Instead, they used a series of photographs of cis men and women to establish a specific set of criteria to which they'd compare their test politicians. Based on that system, it’s apparently possible to use the very bones in a woman’s face to determine whether she’s going to vote on the Farm Bill or something.

To me, this actually suggests something more sinister than the prospect of someone voting for a candidate because they consciously think her lipstick is more representative of traditional straight-lady values. Republican women read as “pretty” because they have a more stereotypically feminine bone structure, at least to the team at UCLA. “Pretty,” here, means having higher cheekbones, a small forehead, and a soft jaw line –- essentially, secondary-sex characteristics that are less often prominent in men.

The issue here is the conservative tendency to vote in those women who fit the physical gender norm rather than the ones who are more atypical. For the Republican Party, many of whose platforms hinge on “traditional” roles of women and marriage, a gender non-normative female politician may suggest a dangerous possibility of subversion. It’s likely, too, that conservative women trying to go into politics most likely have a much easier time of it if they do have these normative features. 

Because conservatives have now articulated what a female politician should look like, even subconsciously, it’s probably very difficult for anyone who transgresses that to find any sort of success. I’m not really a rally-the-troops-for-the-right kind of gal, but I do think it’s important for people to be judged by their policies as much as possible rather than what genetics has thrown up in their north of the neck region.

Unfortunately, voters’ tendencies to favor women with femme-y faces would likely remain steady even if Michele Bachmann shaved her head and wore a flannel. As we’ve seen from studies of symmetry and attractiveness, our thinking brain often has very little to do with the immediate assumptions we make based on facial structure. When a conservative voter sees a candidate with “feminine” features, I’m guessing they probably don’t spend a lot of time analyzing their hairstyle or grilling them on their politics.

Instead, they go with their guts -– which, incidentally, are telling them that maintaining the facial-feature status quo is probably in their best interest for the party line. And, hell, they're probably right.

It does kind of make me want to find the "prettiest" Democrats I can and shove them at some swing states to skew the balance, though. For science!

Kate is flaunting her masculine jaw at @katchatters.