New research out this week confirms what many consider obvious: mens’ minds go a little fuzzy when they’re watching attractive, suggestively dressed women on TV.
Tom Jacobs reported at Miller-McCune this week on a study, conducted by researchers at Indiana University, that compared viewers’ abilities to remember the content of a newscast presented by a female anchor. In the study, two versions of an original newscast were created, with the same woman presenting. In one version, she was dressed in a sexually suggestive fashion; in the other, she was not. After watching one of the two versions, participants (both male and female) were asked a series of questions based on the content of the newscast and the competence of the anchor.
Here’s what the researchers found:
- Men found the woman in the sexy version “less suited for war and political reporting.”
- Men remembered less of the actual information presented in the “sexy” version.
- By contrast, female viewers did not find one version of the anchor more or less competent than the other.
- And female viewers actually remembered more of the information presented in the sexualized version—though the effect was not as drastic as it was for men.
There’s been a lot of buzz about the fact that overly sexualized news anchors can derail a man’s ability to retain information. It comes shortly after Fox News host Megyn Kelly’s revealing GQ photo spread.
Presumably, this sexy anchor conceit is a cheap tactic major networks play to boost ratings. But this study brings new light to the consequences of selling sex. It is a particularly public demonstration of how easily the conveyance of important information can be disrupted by sexually suggestive images.
Jacobs and others were quick to tune-in to the implications of this result. “The study provides evidence for a basic theory of evolutionary psychology: When it comes to processing information, visual tends to trump verbal,” Jacobs wrote.
But there is a second (possibly more important) component to the results, which seems to have been left by the wayside: the sexy news anchor was deemed less suitable for her job because of her appearance.
Although we should be concerned about how we remember information, we should also consider what the study tells us about the expectations our culture has for female professionals. This has some very serious implications when it comes to measuring the successes of women in professional environments—and in the public eye.
How was the sexualized news anchor perceived as a communications professional? The men in the study not only forgot what she said more easily, they didn’t consider her well-suited to cover the serious subjects of war and politics—traditionally male-dominated realms. In other words, a prejudice was exposed. This may also be obvious to some—it is easier to objectify a woman who is dressed to trigger all the usual sexual cues.
It would be easy to brush this aside and simply insist what men have been insisting for years: that if women want to be taken seriously, they should wear looser clothes and less makeup. But women shouldn’t have to desexualize themselves in order to be successful. After all, according to the study, women do not hold the same prejudices against other women.
It would also be unfair to insist that female TV journalists are simply sexy pawns in the game of big network ratings-grabbing. They are professionals who take their work seriously—some of them happen to be hot. Yes, appearance matters big-time on TV, but there is still a significant amount of individual choice involved. We just shouldn’t expect them to hide themselves in bulky pantsuits if they feel uncomfortable doing so. If women are really equals in the professional world, they should be allowed to keep making these choices as equals—beginning in the dressing room.
After all, Megyn Kelly (like her or not) holds a JD and is a journalist by trade—she is a pinup model by chance. Men should judge her by her professional achievements, not her neckline.
—Photo James Trosh/Flickr