Regardless of why so many conservative organizations—such as Fox News—hire attractive women who may be unqualified for their positions, calling them “dumb” makes us bullies, Lynn Beisner says.
Several months ago, the chair of the academic department I work in invited me out for coffee. If the invitation itself hadn’t tipped me off that this was a serious conversation, her demeanor would have. Eventually she got around to asking the question that I had been waiting for: “Can I ask you something, just between you and me?” As a writer and a total smart-ass, I responded: “Of course: just you, me, and my thousands of readers.” We both laughed and she went on to say that my writing was precisely why she was talking to me. On behalf of the selection committee, she was asking me to apply for an academic appointment. I was more than a bit shocked by her request. I could name a dozen people in our department more qualified than I was for the post. Why on earth would they want me? Well, they wanted me because I’m a decent writer, and because I’m fairly good at taking the most convoluted academic language and turning it into something readable.
Academic departments are judged, in large part, by how well published their faculty and graduate students are. Good research is not enough to get a person published anymore—good writing is now required as well. I would be ensconced in the department not for my knowledge or ability in our field of study. Rather, I would be there to help make the department look better. They knew I was unqualified for the position, and in the end, students would have suffered from my appointment. Nevertheless, I would have benefited the department greatly because it is judged by its publishing, not by student learning.
I could not in good conscience apply for the appointment, and to be honest, their request made me feel dirty in a way that I could not at first understand. I told my husband: “Taking it would make me feel like a whore, and that is saying something when you consider the fact that I think that I could take money for sex and not feel like a whore.”
I thought about that incident this past week as I read an insightful article about why the women who appear on Fox News are made up to look like beauty pageant contestants. Liza Mundy speculates that Fox hires beautiful women and then dresses and grooms them to look like Barbie dolls because it plays well to their audience, and because their persistent perkiness provides a perfect counterbalance to the crotchety demeanor of the hosts who are typically much older. Where I begin to worry, however, is when she argues that conservative women are less squeamish about using their looks to gain advantage. Sociologists call this “trading on erotic capital.” Based on the women chosen by the GOP and by Fox, Mundy claims that conservative women with erotic capital do not hesitate to use it to achieve success in conservative organizations.
I worry when we start talking about women using erotic capital for personal advantage. To me, it sounds too much like we are calling a woman a whore using academic language. It also makes me wonder how we would actually know if conservative women are more willing to trade on their beauty, when it seems just as likely that conservative organizations are only interested in hiring and promoting women who look good but pose no intellectual threat. At the very least, I believe it is safe to say that the women of conservative groups say more about the organizations and the environment in which they compete than they do about the willingness of certain types of women to use erotic capital.
Conservative organizations are hiring women with erotic capital because it benefits the organization. They are no different than my department which was willing to appoint an unqualified person because they wanted to boost their publishing rate to appear successful. Conservative organizations hire attractive women and promote their beauty because it makes them appear successful.
It is an open secret in corporate America that businessmen judge their peers by the beauty of their receptionists and their wives. The problem, of course, is that a woman’s worth and beauty become so intertwined that you end up with people like Donald Trump who insult every woman who offends them by calling her ugly. Most recently, he tweeted that Arianna Huffington was so ugly she deserved to be abandoned by her husband.
Japanese companies are at least honest about hiring women whose sole function is to raise the company’s reputation by being young and beautiful. Called “office flowers,” these young women are hired just out of middle school or high school, given menial tasks around the office, and expected to marry and quit before they enter their late 20s. Women with college educations are not eligible for these positions.
It seems that one of the job qualifications for being the token woman on Fox News is that you at least pretend to be dumb. Consider that Gretchen Carlson, who graduated with honors from Stanford, has to pretend that she does not know the definition of words so basic that I doubt they are even on the SAT study list. Of course the problem with “office flowers” is that they reinforce the notion that women are less intelligent and competent than men, but that is the fault of those who wanted decorative women, not the women themselves.
By far the biggest problem with hiring people based on things other than their qualifications is that there is a reasonable chance they will not be qualified. Certainly I was not qualified for the post I was asked to apply for, and I think that we can all agree that Sarah Palin was laughably unqualified to be Vice President, let alone President. And the women on Fox News are unqualified to offer any meaningful challenge to the male anchors.
The fault, however, lies not in the women who apply for the jobs but in those who hire them. A friend of mine reflected on Sarah Palin’s nomination by comparing the GOP to an airline under fire for not hiring enough female pilots. But rather than going out to flight schools and recruiting the most qualified candidates, they just start willy-nilly promoting the prettiest and most popular flight attendants to the position of pilot. The fact that the pilots are utterly unqualified is no reason to harangue them, but it is a very good reason to boycott the airline.
Accepting the appointment that I was asked to apply for would not have made me an academic whore. Women rising in conservative organizations based on their appearance does not mean that they are trading in erotic capital. I would go so far as to say that insulting women in conservative organizations for having exactly the qualities that they were hired and promoted for makes us bullies. It is the organization, not the women, who are to blame.