Power and Prejudice

Scientific perspectives on power, subtle prejudice, and discrimination

Just Because Paul Ryan Is Hot, Does That Mean He Is Also Objectified?

My eyes are up here! And those eyes are dreamy…

Mitt Romney announced his running mate over the weekend. And guess what? He’s hot! We don’t even have to qualify it. Many say that Paul Ryan is not just attractive for a politician, but he’s a bona fide hunk.

Don’t take my word for it. Check out Politico. The Huffington Post. The Washington Post. He’s even got the first lady swooning (over his P90X workout, that is).

This interest in the physique of Mr. Ryan has commentators wondering whether he’s being objectified. We already know that women are reduced to their appearance (Heflick & Goldenberg, 2009) and sexual body parts (Gervais, Vescio, Forster, Maass, & Suitner, 2012), but it appears that people may be equal opportunity oglers, objectifying men too.

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Just because people think Paul Ryan is hot, does that mean that he’s objectified?

The short answer to this question is “yes.” Following Romney’s VP announcement, the second most common term connected with Paul Ryan in google searches was “shirtless.” Rather than checking out Paul Ryan’s policies, people were simply checking him out. Instead of considering how he may crunch the numbers to balance the budget, people were wondering how many crunches Paul Ryan does each day to maintain those 6 pack abs. You get the picture. And if the picture is the only thing that comes to mind when you think of Paul Ryan, then you are objectifying him.

Actually, I’m starting to wonder what is up with these Republican presidential nominees selecting sexy running mates. Weren’t we having a similar conversation regarding a certain sexy librarian just four years ago?

Indeed, in a study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology back in 2009 that investigated the sexual objectification of Sarah Palin, Nathan Heflick and Jamie Goldenberg of the University of South Florida found that when people were asked to focus on Sarah Palin’s appearance (vs. Sarah Palin as a person) they regarded her as less competent, less human, and indicated less intention to vote for her.

To be clear, besides their conservative leanings and fetching looks, Paul Ryan and Sarah Palin appear to have little in common, but I wonder whether we would find similar consequences if we did the same study with Paul Ryan today.

The research suggests “no.”

In a second investigation, Heflick and his colleagues (2011) again asked participants to focus on the appearance of public figures, except in this case he included both women and men, and to control for potential confounding variables, all of the public figures were unknown to the participants and were equal on all dimensions (e.g., attractiveness) other than gender. The results were striking. Although Heflick found that objectification again led to decreased perceptions of competence and likeability for women, men were regarded as equally intelligent and friendly, regardless of whether they were objectified or not. Similarly, sexy women tend to be dehumanized more than sexy men (Vaes, Paladino, & Puvia, 2011) and even when attractive men are sexually objectified (Gervais, Vescio, & Allen, 2011), they are still regarded as more powerful than women.

Will this focus on Paul Ryan’s appearance translate into people viewing him as less intelligent, less friendly, and ultimately make the Romney-Ryan ticket less vote worthy? Only time will tell as this long political season plays out.

In the meantime, I’m going to dig up a sexy picture of him for this post.

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Copyright 2012 by Sarah J. Gervais. All rights reserved.

Sarah J. Gervais, Ph.D., is a social-law psychologist at the University of Nebraska.

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