“How did it become so difficult to call a woman good-looking in public?” asked Politico’s Dylan Byers, when the news hit that President Obama had slipped out of his prepared remarks to call California Attorney General Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general.” (“Oooh” said the crowd, prompting the president to defend his assertion.)
More on the president later. But first, I have compiled a list of times that it is okay to comment on women’s looks in public, when you do not know the women in question, and wouldn’t say the same thing about a man in that position.
If you’d like, I can reprint a more detailed version.
Of course, this is the point when guys complain that they are cursed if they do and cursed if they don’t, and you wind up with scenarios like this, where a “post-gender-normative” man is rejected by a woman in a bar and concludes by saying “I thank you for your time, which was equal to mine.”
“You are creating a hideous nightmare dystopia,” they say, “where I am confronted with a beautiful woman in a very fetching black dress and I have to stare at her and say, ‘What a great Thursday! I have never felt more strongly that you were my intellectual equal!'”
I think we need a variant of the comic-book Hawkeye Initiative. How about the McCain rule? If you wouldn’t say it about John McCain — don’t say it about Hillary or Michele or Michelle or Kamala. “And before we finish introducing war hero and veteran public servant Senator McCain, allow me a moment to comment on his raw physical magnetism. Hottie with a legislative body, right there!” “Senator McCain, looking especially fetching in a variant on his usual two-piece suit ensemble, bestowed smiles on all around him.” “Senator McCain’s Haircut: Three Tips To Achieve The Look.”
Certain compliments are worse than insults. It’s not just the back-handed– “You look so much healthier now” — or my favorite that I’ve actually heard someone deliver, “Oh my gosh, that shirt. It’s — it’s so you.” It’s like the beginning of that New York Times obituary for a female rocket scientist that first complimented her skills in the kitchen. True, sure. And I’m sure it took effort. But it seems like a waste of time spending years studying and working hard, just to get the exact caliber of compliment you would have gotten if you had just stood on the street corner in sweatpants near a construction site. “Oh, hey, you’re a nationally respected [Blank]!” these compliments say. “Here is a compliment on your looks, over which you have comparatively limited control and into which you did not put years of effort! You’re welcome!” Remember all the chatter about John Edwards’ hair? It’s dismissive — whether intentionally or not.
“So what should he have said? Nothing?” Yes.
Look, it’s not that he said a mean thing or even a thing for the wrong reason. But somehow I have difficulty envisioning him saying something analogous to Eric Holder. Leave aside street harassment and catcalls, just for the moment. That’s a more egregious case. This was a case of the president of the United States saying something he clearly thought was Not Something That Would Unleash Great Hordes Of Wrathful Internet People against him. I’m sure he doesn’t think talking about looks is wrong. He used to use himself as an example in cases when teaching and say, “Take Barack Obama, there’s a good-looking guy.” And perhaps it isn’t. But it is still an area where there’s a gender imbalance, although as I type this I’m sure someone’s already compiled a ranking of Hottie A. G.’s.
There is always this perverse idea that Feminism Wants To Stop You From Complimenting Anyone Ever On Anything, and women will start to punch you in the face if you dare to hold a door open for them. The Feminazis are out to kill All The Compliments! Well, no. Just be equitable about it. Hold the door open for people, not for Ladies. Compliment everyone. Do unto Kamala as you would unto John.
I admit it’s hard. We have a self-imposed “Reverse Mallard” problem. If you’ve looked at the ducks for any period of time, you notice that the males are awash in color and the females all sport a conservative dun. In public fashion life, the opposite is true. Men’s attire looks, broadly speaking, the same. Women’s attire is colorful and tailored and has all kinds of bells and whistles on it that make for much more colorful commentary. Even efforts to evade this natural discrepancy by wearing the blandest thing possible don’t always get you out of the weeds. Hillary’s pantsuits became a discussion all their own. (“I thought this was what you wore to indicate you didn’t want people to discuss what you wore,” the staid ensembles grumbled.) But that doesn’t make it right. My usual answer is that men need to start wearing colorful, pointed shoes and knee-breeches again, in the simple interest of equity of color commentary. Dress everyone as 18th-century pirates! Bring back broadcloth and brocade! I think they would look very fetching on Senator McCain.