Image and Capitalism

Female Classical MusicianElizabeth referred me to a very interesting academic article, Orchestrating Impartiality: The Impact of “Blind” Auditions on Female Musicians. It finds that when the judges can’t see the performer, women musicians do markedly better.[1] This is not surprising.

You probably remember that widely cited study about people with black-sounding names receiving fewer interviews than people with white-sounding names. A more recent study has called it into question. The researchers claim that the results may not indicate race but rather social status. Personally, I don’t find the study all that compelling. But even if true, it just indicates a different kind of prejudice — one that just happens to correlate with race in this country.

I’m interested in this question on a very basic level. I’m interested in the way that things like height, weight, and perceived attractiveness affect how people are rewarded. This is not because they are particularly important. Instead, I’m interested in the ways in which even on the most facile level, meritocracy is nonsense.

Image and the Workplace

Consider someone needed to do data entry. All that matters is typing skills. There are two candidates. One of them is sullen and ugly with a typing speed of 100 wmp. The other is chipper and attractive with a typing speed of 90 wmp. Just based upon the work that needs to get done, the first candidate should be hired. But we all know it is the second candidate who will be hired.

In this case, people will complain that it’s a drag to be around sullen people. First, those who think that have never had a data entry job. But beyond that, I think the same would be true if the job were done remotely. As I learned in a career class in high school: the candidate who is hired is the one the employer likes the most.

I’ve seen this in the freelance writing world. Writers do not like to update their pictures. This is, not surprisingly, most true of female writers because they are most judged on their appearance. This is far too common to be simply a question of vanity. Image = money.

Capitalism and the Ugly Person

This is a fundamental failing of capitalism. Without capitalism, people will still be discriminated against. But their livelihoods will not depend upon their attractiveness. And they will be better able to find meaning in their lives outside their value in the market.

It’s funny how capitalism makes all our social problems worse. Yet we are just supposed to accept it because “Stalin!” Or “iPhones!”

The Music Biz

It’s shocking the degree to which personal attractiveness dictates the careers of classical musicians. You might have noticed how opera changed from the 1960s when the singers tended to be overweight to the point now when most singers are hunka hunka burning loves.

Or look at almost any recent instrumental star like Tine Thing Helseth (who is nonetheless great).

But it’s worse than that. The rise of child stars in classical music is part of this. They have always existed but now that there are more and better ways to monetize them, they have exploded.

What drives me crazy, is the tendency of musicians (Especially pianists and violinists!) to sway and close their eyes and do everything else to communicate to the audience who very much they feel the music. Rubbish! That’s image over music. (It’s also a classical music audience that is mostly tone deaf.)

Back to Reality: Managers Are Dumb

All of this brings me back to an interview I was at where the guy being interviewed was clearly incompetent. But he was a good-looking, ex-military guy. And he was very confident. I knew he would be useless, but the owners loved him.

This problem only gets worse the more inequality there is in the economy. When you have millions of dollars, you can stand to waste some of it in the name of surrounding yourself with the cool people. If that means your employees type 10 percent slower — or even that they never get any work done at all — no big deal.

Capitalism: all your worst prejudices realized!


[1] There is something odd that goes on in semifinal rounds. You can read about it in the paper if you are interested. If anything, however, it is further indication that women are discriminated in getting seats in symphony orchestras.