Yesterday, in a very unscientific experiment, I posted pictures of Gwyneth Paltrow and Asthon Kutcher in separate posts and asked the readers to offer a comment. The experiment had nothing to do with either Paltrow and Kutcher personally, nor was it to see if I could bait the readers into simply commenting on a picture (given the contrarian nature of our commenters, an easier way might have been to posit that the sky was blue). It was an honest experiment, and the results were actually quite surprising.
First, some context: I posted a trailer on Monday for the feminist documentary, Miss Representation. One of the major points in that documentary was how the media trivializes women, how it generally reduces a woman to her looks. One of the major examples in the documentary was the 2008 Presidential election and how, at least according to the documentary, the media was more inclined to comment on the physical appearance of both Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton than they were to comment on their credentials. When I mentioned that in the review back in January, a lot of commenters took issue, insisting that your opinions of her had nothing to do with her looks and everything to do with her lack of credentials, lack of intelligence, etc. And that’s probably true, although we are a left-leaning site, so obviously there is a skewed perception of Palin.
In the documentary, however, they were able to pull a great many of examples of the media commenting on the female candidates’ appearance instead of their credentials (there was, famously, a small media scandal over a blouse that Hillary Clinton wore revealing her cleavage). On the other hand, very little was said about McCain and Obama’s appearance — the focus was largely on their credentials and experience.
Anyway, what I wanted to do with the social experiment was tease out whether or not our readers would apply more focus on a female’s physical appearance or her personality, experience, and talent (whether positive or negative). I also wanted to compare that to how our readers would comment on a man. I purposely chose two people who I thought would elicit a large number of comments, but I also tried to choose relatively neutral, headshot images only.
Again, this was not scientific. I wouldn’t know how to conduct a proper scientific experiment on the site. It’s purely anecdotal. There are any number of reasons you could use to dismiss the results, from the selection of images, to the people chosen, to the readership being polled, and anything you’re bound to come up with if you think about it for ten seconds or more, including the fact that we have more female readers than male. Obviously, you can take the results with as large a grain of salt as you’d like.
The results, however, were surprising. Even taking into account my own built-in bias toward confirming my hypothesis, the results were the opposite of what I expected. This is an approximate count, of course, because it’s hard to come up with an absolute value for each comment, but, in a 5 to 2 ratio, our readers were far more likely to comment on Paltrow’s substance (personality, talent, experience) than her physical appearance. On the other hand, when it came to the male being judged, while our readers were still more likely to base their observations on substance over physical appearance, the ratio was a much smaller 3-2.
What does that mean? Nothing with certainty, but it does appear that — while physical appearance is certainly a factor — as a whole, the substance of the person was being judged more than his or her looks, and that’s even moreso in case of the female. Obviously, there were a lot of exceptions in the 275+ comments, but collectively, it does appear that substance matters more to our readers than looks. And based on this social experiment alone, it also appears that our readers, collectively, aren’t terribly sexist. You are just as, or more likely, to judge a man by his appearance than a woman and, in both cases, more likely to judge him or her on other factors besides their appearance.
Dismiss it, invalidate it, or take it for what it’s worth (and I’m sure there would’ve been a different result with different celebrities involved), but I still found the very amateur social experiment enlightening, even if obviously the results couldn’t be extrapolated ot the rest of the nation.