The tumultuous Democratic primary race for New York’s first new mayor in 12 years is nearing the finish line. There are only a few days left until Democratic voters take to the polls on Tuesday, and after the implosion of Anthony Weiner‘s campaign and a poll that has Bill de Blasio surging to a commanding lead, the city’s public advocate currently looks like he has the advantage with voters.
And it appears there’s another advantage for de Blasio: He’s tall. And I mean really tall–the kind of tall that makes writers who profile him use it as a metaphor for his high-minded liberalism. At 6-foot-5, de Blasio towers over his competitors. The photos from the debate Sept. 3 say it all: de Blasio is at least a head taller than his opponents, and his position in the center of the room only accentuated his height.
Does that matter? Maybe not so much in New York. The city has had its share of short-yet-powerful mayors, and New York mayors’ height has famously been questioned in the past. But in general, a tall stature usually–if subconsciously–confers an advantage when it comes to being picked as a leader.
We’d like to think the measure of a person’s body matters little when it comes to measuring his or her capacity to lead. But plenty of research confirms that “height-ism” really does exist. One recent study showed that 58 percent of presidents elected were taller than their opponents (the researchers threw out 11 elections for lack of data or height differences), and that 67 percent of the winners of the popular vote were taller. A 2011 study by psychologists at Texas Tech University found that when asked to draw the “ideal national leader” alongside an “average citizen,” 64 percent of study participants drew the leader as the taller figure. The rationale is simple, the authors say: We choose tall leaders because of caveman politics. It’s evolutionary forces at work. (Emphasis Added)
TSC: Why is it that anytime we read an article about heightism in the mainstream press, we find a disclaimer about “evolutionary forces”? Presumably, the purpose of reminding us about evolution in a conversation about social bias merely serves to separate heightism from “serious” forms of discrimination. However, racism and certainly sexism are also holdovers from our evolutionary past - an example of cavemen politics.
But you would never read an article about the gender pay gap with a comment which reads “We choose male leaders because of caveman politics. It’s evolutionary forces at work.”
The standard practice for sympathetic media depictions of short people is to praise the short person for “overcoming their shortness”, while not actually challenging the social construct which requires them to overcome it in the first place. In almost all cases, this social construct (heightism) is never explored or even identified within the article. The journalist will simply assume that all of his/her readers understand that being short is a bad thing and something worthy of overcoming by “standing tall" (or some similar play-on-words). In journalism, when a short subject is portrayed in a positive light, it will almost always be in-spite of the subject’s height. That way, the social construct of heightism can remain unchallenged.
Here is an example.
This article describes the hardships that a short baseball catcher (Jeremy Rodriguez) has to face because of his height. The journalist focuses on his subject’s journey to become a better athlete while overcoming doubt and ridicule from rivals and fans alike. And even though the article seems somewhat sympathetic to its subject, the journalist never questions the notion that this athlete should automatically be perceived (at least initially) as inferior and incapable of playing on par with his teammates.
Journalists writing about short people LOVE play-on-words, because it’s easy. The English language contains many a word which can apply to height or physical size, and to another abstract idea (like “great” - meaning “large”, and “great” - meaning “better than good”).
Eugene Emeralds manager Pat Murphy describes his “little, sawed-off catcher,” Jeremy Rodriguez, with one word — “short.”
“Murph’s right. I’m a short guy,” Rodriguez says.
Although being short describes Rodriguez, the San Diego Padres’ 2011 16th-round draft pick doesn’t let it define him.
“I have a lot of heart when I play this game, and I don’t take things for granted,” Rodriguez says. “I don’t have a lot of opportunity to play professional baseball, so me getting an opportunity to play here for the Padres is huge for me.”
“Oompa Loompa doompadee doo”
When he’s in the batter’s box, short jokes put a smile on Rodriguez’s face like chocolate does for a kid. His short stature — Rodriguez is listed on the Emeralds’ website as 5’8″ — does make him the target for creative heckling from opposing fans, but he uses their insults to get himself prepared during the game.
“Hearing the fans puts a laugh when I’m hitting, so it gets me relaxed and I think I’m ready,” Rodriguez says.
You can click on the title to read the full article, but rest assured that the journalist never challenges heightism as a social construct. Even in this excerpt, you can see that he compares this rarefied athlete (how many other human beings, of any height, are talented enough to get a chance to play Major League Baseball?) to a child eating chocolates. And in the next sentence, he characterizes verbal insults about height as “creative heckling”.
Moreover, even though the tone of the article is generally positive as to the athlete’s abilities, the journalist never challenges the heightism which is the basis for Rodriguez’s hardships. He never even makes a value judgment against the people who hurl insults at the subject of the article. In fact, he utilizes heightist language himself in order to (as they say in journalism) “add more color” to the commentary.
Here are the headings of each segment of the article:
“Oompa Loompa doompadee doo”
“We need to cut the grass, because the catcher can’t see the mound”
“Hey Gilligan, it’s the Skipper. How ya doing, little buddy?”
“RU-DY! RU-DY! RU-DY!”
Finally, the last paragraph really brings it all into focus.
“He’s a great example to many young people in the world that it doesn’t matter how vertical you are,” Murphy says. “He couldn’t have made it to this point at 5’5” if he didn’t have something really special about him.”
This appears to be the thesis of the entire article. Notice how he follows the standard practice by praising the short subject of the article as “special” (one of the good ones), while still supporting the widely held idea that short people are generally inferior (heightism). He quotes this person who says that a 5’5” man can not make it in baseball, but he never explains why this would be the case. He assumes that his audience will understand that a short man shouldn’t be expected to catch pitches with a catchers mitt to the same degree that a tall man could.
I can certainly understand why it takes a strong man to be able to catch baseballs being hurled at his chest at ninety miles-per-hour, but it’s not immediately apparent why it takes a tall man to do so…until you think about it through the prism of heightism.