Philip Ruddock looks like an extra from The Walking Dead. When Kevin Rudd wears a cork hat, it’s to keep astronauts from landing on his face. Prime Minster George Houstoun Reid once fielded a question about the size of his belly.
We’ve been making fun of the way authority figures look since before Federation. In fact, it’s the central purpose of political cartoons. Is it mature, elegant, intelligent or helpful? Not particularly. But it can be wildly funny, and given the way many pollies present themselves, it’s also pretty easy.
In our culture, there are more women in the public eye for their looks than for anything else. From old advertisements of smiling showgirls to new advertisements of much the same thing, female beauty is something we never get tired of, no matter how saturated we are in it.
So, when women turn up in the public consciousness for their professional accomplishments, their piles of gold, or their political clout – that is, when women become authority figures – it makes absolute and unquestionable sense that we would make fun of them for how they look.
There is however, one crucial difference between comments about Sir Reid’s belly and Julia Gillard’s bottom, which is that no one expected the first jibe to win an argument, where as the second butts in as if to take the place of informed criticism.
Even for infants, “you’re ugly” doesn’t fly as a closing argument. Yet commentators on the Hilary Mantel vs Duchess Catherine debacle seemed to use Mantel’s appearance as the sole witness in the case against her well reasoned words.
This isn’t to say that looks and presentation aren’t important. To deny appearance’s aid to influence is to deny a considerable body of data and research. CEOs are more likely to be tall, people are more likely to follow someone in business attire, and women who wear a light face of makeup are perceived as more competent. To ignore the fact that we naturally gravitate towards good looks is dangerous. It means our preferences crawl into our subconscious, where they sit no less potent, but completely unchecked.
Humans can be shallow, fickle creatures. We’re distracted both by shiny, pretty things and by signs of imperfection. We judge quickly on appearance because we’ve often lost the rest of our time by retreating into our heads.
Our keen eye for fault in static images is the biggest reason glamour industries are so enthralled with Photoshop – when you take a picture with a halo of hair fuzz or a visible pimple, that’s all people are going to see.
On the other hand, while speaking to someone who looks just-so, in clothes that fit, hair that compliments and shoes that gleam with a professional polish, we might not even realise we’re responding to their looks. If their delivery is as confident as their appearance, we simply think they know what they’re talking about.
One can even reach some depth by plumbing the surface. Because dressing is a matter of taste, appearance offers hints, if you know how to read them. At its most obvious, we can note that the man in the perfectly cut Armani is a self-styled sophisticate who is prepared to set aside the jingoism of local manufacturing in the face of superior quality.
The way someone looks may be a clue, but it can’t solve the mystery in isolation. As someone who makes fun of people’s outfits professionally, I’m well aware that glittering, fringed Valentino might contribute to our perception of Carey Mulligan as Daisy Buchannan, but it can’t save her from a poor performance. Such styling is a trick – but not a cheap one.
The same principle applies to our female politicians, commentators and tycoons. You can linger for a moment on a new set of frames or a botched blow-dry, but then you have to get back to the business at hand. A business that has nothing to do with how they look. Appearance is an aside, not an argument.
Because women have been relegated to looking good and giving birth for so long, insulting a woman’s ability to act out the first part of her “role” can be a regressive attack on her over all worth. It can be a way of trapping women within their bodies and, by extension, blocking them from significant participation in public, cerebral, life. It can be, but it doesn’t have to be.
We’re visual creatures. We’ll always notice someone’s presentation, but we’re perfectly able to separate looks from meaning when it comes to men. On International Women’s Day, maybe it is time to abandon the unrealistic expectation that we won’t judge people at all for how they appear, but instead resolve to recognise and reflect on how something so beside the point might still result in bias, then move on.
In this mainly secular society, I think we’re past the point where we see ugliness or beauty as signs from god about a person’s virtue or lack there-of, so let’s acknowledge that there are socially ingrained reasons why we might reduce a woman to her outer shell and stop it.