December 18, 2007

A Beauty Contest? Have You Seen These Beauties?

Could one bad picture derail a presidential campaign? Have political campaigns become the equivalent of beauty contests for both men and women, and if so, can women get a fair shake at an age where candidates have the requisite experience? Rush Limbaugh, surprisingly, believes not, and has some sympathy for the unfairness for women:

There is this thing in this country that, as you age -- and this is particularly, you know, women are hardest hit on this, and particularly in Hollywood -- America loses interest in you, and we know this is true because we constantly hear from aging actresses, who lament that they can't get decent roles anymore, other than in supporting roles that will not lead to any direct impact, yay or nay, in the box office. While Hollywood box-office receipts may be stagnant, none of that changes the fact that this is a country obsessed with appearance. It's a country obsessed with looks. The number of people in public life who appear on television or on the big screen, who are content to be who they are, you can probably count on one hand. Everybody's trying to make themselves look different -- and in that situation, in that case, they think they're making themselves look better. It's just the way our culture has evolved. It's the way the country is. It's like almost an addiction that some people have to what I call the perfection that Hollywood presents of successful, beautiful, fun-loving people. So the question is this: Will this country want to actually watch a woman get older before their eyes on a daily basis?

Well, perhaps, although I'll need more evidence than a single campaign and a single bad photo. Rush has the double standard correct in entertainment, of course. Actresses have lamented this for decades, but it comes from the target audience for most Hollywood studio films -- teen-age boys. They want macho actors and hot young women for their explosion-filled action films, and older women wind up looking for roles in more meaningful indie projects.

Fortunately, the target audience for politics is somewhat different. That's why, even though we've lamented the effect of television on politics ever since Richard Nixon's makeup did a landslide during the 1960 debate, we have rarely elected any beauties to office. Kennedy qualified, and Bill Clinton, but the latter only beat a much older incumbent president because of an independent run by Ross Perot. Otherwise, we've nominated such youthful flowers of manhood as Ronald Reagan at 69, Nixon, Hubert Humphrey, Barry Goldwater, Lyndon Johnson, George McGovern, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Walter Mondale, and Robert Dole. That's not exactly a lineup that will generate a Power Line Miss World post.

This contest isn't much different. The national frontrunners, Rudy Giuliani and Hillary Clinton, wear their experience on their faces, while more youthful competitors have struggled to catch up. Mitt Romney has just about accomplished that, while Barack Obama has only become viable through Hillary's incompetence as a campaigner. John Edwards, who more than anyone typifies a beauty-contest argument, hasn't gained any traction at all.

And if we're talking gender double-standards, perhaps people should recall how Fred Thompson has been treated. His pre-campaign focused on his marriage to a much younger woman and the oddity that some people considered it. His wrinkled countenance has generated a cottage industry in medical diagnoses and prognoses. Hillary has hardly begun to plumb those depths.

The Republic, I think, remains safe. There is plenty to criticize in our presidential campaigning, starting with the content-free and intellectually insulting "debates" that get inflicted upon the candidates and the voters. The slate of candidates themselves don't show any evidence of beauty pageant influence -- unless the term "ugly American" has a much wider application than tourist behavior.

UPDATE: I took the picture down. Those who want a reference to it can check the link.

UPDATE II: I took the picture down because I think including it weakened my argument, but I don't think others have to follow suit. Also, color me completely unsurprised that a number of bloggers are accusing Rush of exploiting this when any rational read of his transcript shows that he was lamenting the superficiality of Americans in regards to ageism for women.

UPDATE III: The alternative is to have this on the campaign trail. No, thank you...


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