Objects and Politics

Recent research is breaking new ground in understanding the gender gap in politics, pointing to how self-objectification undermines our political engagement.

By Christine Coolick, SWE Contributor

The gender gap — the disparity between women and men in terms of social, political, intellectual, and economic attainments and health outcomes — has been intensely studied around the globe for centuries. U.S. society’s focus on gender equality came to the forefront in the 1840s with the first known women’s rights convention and the women’s suffrage movement, and again in the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and ’70s. U.S. economists have examined how the gender gap relates to economics, health, and education since the 1890s, and the United Nations included gender equality as a core tenet of its charter in 1945. Since the 1980s, the gender gap’s influence in the political sphere has become a topic of research as well.

Gothreau headshot

“Women who are high self-objectifiers have incorporated their physical beauty as a central part of their self-concept. [Frequently], this belief is driven by feminine beauty culture, or the socially constructed notion that for women, physical attractiveness is an extremely important asset.”

– Claire M. Gothreau, Ph.D., research associate, Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, in The Journal of Women, Politics and Policy

Moving beyond traditional predictors

Researchers have investigated myriad underlying causes in an attempt to understand this gap and to help reach gender parity in politics. Some of the first investigations looked at issues such as socioeconomic status and levels of women in the workforce.

“Those were the earlier, big, proposed predictors of why women engage in politics less: that there were these gaps in employment and access to resources,” said Claire M. Gothreau, Ph.D., research associate at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University. But as more and more women pursued careers and the employment gap shrank, those theories explaining political underrepresentation didn’t hold up.

New theories about a lack of access to resources for developing civic skills emerged, as well as examining whether the types of careers men pursue were more common pipelines to political engagement. But as those resource gaps have started to close as well, these traditional predictors no longer account for differences in political engagement.

The political gender gap itself has closed in some spaces — women now vote more than men in the United States — but remains in such spaces as political interest, self-efficacy, and protest activity. The gap is also found globally, and new theories are emerging as to why it still exists.

More recent research has focused on psychological explanations, which can affect individuals on more personal and internalized levels. For example, professor of political science at Michigan State University Jennifer Wolak, Ph.D., who studies political behavior in America, has examined women’s self-confidence, self-esteem, and tendency to avoid conflict in relation to political engagement. Her published research has found that gender’s effects on psychological engagement with politics are affected by feelings of self-confidence. In another study, she found that self-esteem plays a critical role in political partisanship in young people, where those with higher self-esteem being more likely to adopt a partisan identity than those with low self-esteem. Her published research includes such titles as Self-Confidence and Gender Gaps in Political Interest, Attention, and Efficacy; Conflict Avoidance and Gender Gaps in Political Engagement; and Self-Esteem and the Development of Partisan Identity (co-author).

The insidious workings of objectification

Now, a new study conducted by Dr. Gothreau explores self-objectification in relation to political engagement. The results, published in The Journal of Women, Politics and Policy, paint a complicated picture of how society’s portrayal of gender norms might be influencing how we approach politics.

Objectification — the depiction of a person in a way that frames them as an object or objects — strips away an individual’s personhood, degrading them to a thing that is valued based on their appearance.

According to the American Psychological Association, women and girls are objectified at higher rates than men and boys. Mass media — television, magazines, and websites — all contribute to objectification. So much so, in fact, that “the objectification of women’s bodies is a hallmark of American society and culture,” wrote Dr. Gothreau. This objectification treats women as “bodies or body parts that exist for the consumption and pleasure of others.”

Social media is also a large contributor of objectifying imagery, though most of this content is user-generated — potentially pointing to just how deeply internalized objectification is.

For indeed, such persistent, frequent objectification can lead those who are being objectified to internalize this mindset — to begin to self-objectify. Self-objectification means subscribing to the concept that you are an object — that your worth is tied to your physical body and its appearance.

Psychology research has shown that self-objectifying comes with a number of negative impacts on mental health and cognitive functioning. It is associated with decreased self-esteem and self-efficacy, which is an individual’s belief in their own ability to succeed in any given task. And it’s related to increased anxiety, depression, and negative feelings.

When you self-objectify, you frequently begin a high level of self-surveillance — becoming preoccupied with how your body appears to others — and chronically monitoring your body.

“Women who are high self-objectifiers have incorporated their physical beauty as a central part of their self-concept,” wrote Dr. Gothreau in the study results. Frequently, “this belief is driven by feminine beauty culture, or the socially constructed notion that for women, physical attractiveness is an extremely important asset.”

Self-objectification takes mental bandwidth — diminishing cognitive and attentional resources that could otherwise be applied elsewhere — and disrupts flow, or the ability to fully focus on a task. Dr. Gothreau sought to explore whether self-objectifying influences political behavior as well, and if any such influence would be different based on gender

Two studies, two different samples

Utilizing two different survey studies, Dr. Gothreau surveyed more than 700 men and women in the United States between the ages of 18 and 80. She measured each participant’s self-objectification tendencies utilizing the Objectified Body Consciousness Scale, which asks questions such as “I rarely compare how I look with how other people look,” and “I am more concerned with what my body can do than how it looks.”

To measure internal political efficacy — the belief that one can understand politics and therefore participate in politics — participants shared how strongly they agreed or disagreed with statements such as “I consider myself to be well-qualified to participate in politics” and “I feel that I could do as good a job in public office as most other people.”

Political interest was measured by asking respondents how much they pay attention to political campaigns and following government and public affairs.

In her first study, Dr. Gothreau also measured political information-seeking behavior — how likely participants were to look for more information about political issues.

And in the second study, she assessed political participation to see how much they engaged in political acts in the past year — taking action by signing an online petition, attending a public rally, or donating money to a political campaign.

To account for other variables that are known to influence political engagement, Dr. Gothreau controlled for age, education, ideology, and race.

Past research has found that women tend to be higher self-objectifiers than men, and Dr. Gothreau found this to be true as well in both of her study samples. She also found, in both studies, a negative relationship between self-objectification and various measures of political behavior.

In her first study, Dr. Gothreau found that self-objectification was negatively related to political engagement for women in the sample, but not for men. Meaning, only for those who identify as women, as their self-objectification increased, all three political engagement indicators — interest, information-seeking, and internal political efficacy — decreased.

This means that only women who were high self-objectifiers were experiencing the negative effects on their political engagement. Men — even men who were high self-objectifiers — did not have an accompanying impact on their political behavior.

In the second study with a different sample group, Dr. Gothreau also found that self-objectification was negatively related to internal political efficacy, but this was true for both genders. Being a high self-objectifier was related to having decreased political self-efficacy for both men and women.

Dr. Gothreau cautions that this is one study and further research is warranted, but it suggests that self-objectification has a negative overall political effect for women — and some negative effects for men as well in the domain of political self-efficacy.

The results highlight “the need to think broadly about the lived experiences of women and how those experiences impact political engagement,” Dr. Gothreau wrote, and how, if people view themselves as objects for use — and not as autonomous individuals — they are less likely to participate in politics. And it may lead them to eschew politics altogether.

Dr. Gothreau thinks the results can be useful in regard to closing the gender gap in political engagement.

“I think the main takeaway is that feminine beauty culture and the way that women are objectified in media, in pop culture, or in politics, too, really has an impact on how women perceive themselves,” said Dr. Gothreau. “And that spills over into all kinds of realms. This research problematizes media and popular culture portrayals of women. It suggests that we need to think pretty broadly about how we’re politically socialized and how gender norms and gender life experiences can impact how people engage in politics.”