On the matter of the president and Kamala Harris, I could go either way.
I could write a column — call it Classic Feminist High Dudgeon — lamenting the president’s comments about the California attorney general’s good looks.
This column would discuss the continuing, albeit more subtle, discrimination against women in the workplace. It would explain how, even if unintentionally, Obama’s reference to Harris’s attractiveness is demeaning — that it serves, in the apologetic words of White House press secretary Jay Carney, “to diminish the attorney general’s professional accomplishments and her capabilities.” It would, inevitably, invoke the president’s daughters, and question how he imagines they would have felt in Harris’s place.
It would make melancholy reference to “benevolent sexism,” linking to Slate’s Amanda Marcotte and studies that indicate the insidious danger of such attitudes. “Benevolent sexism is not necessarily experienced as benevolent by the recipient,” psychologists Peter Glick and Susan Fiske write in a paper quoted by Marcotte. “For example, a man’s comment to a female co-worker on how ‘cute’ she looks, however well-intentioned, may undermine her feelings of being taken seriously as a professional.” It’s easy to imagine Harris hearing the president’s praise and wincing.
This column would invoke the recent New York Times obituary of a female rocket scientist that began with a paean to her “mean beef stroganoff.” As the (male) obituary writer discovered, sometimes a compliment has the opposite of its intended effect. Context matters. And it is still necessary to tread carefully on issues related to gender.
So while it is true — and an interesting insight into the premium the president places on physical appearance — that Obama routinely refers to male Cabinet secretaries and other officials as “good-looking guys,” it is also irrelevant. Such compliments, yes even in 2013, carry different resonance when applied to women.
Or I could write precisely the opposite column — call it Contrarian Persnickety — bemoaning the tyranny of political correctness in which male politicians and executives shy away from making even the most innocuous remarks, comments clearly intended to amuse and not belittle.
It would quote from the entirety of Obama’s words, noting that the president was obviously aware of the third-rail nature of such quips and sought to insulate himself from the potential fallout. He didn’t concentrate solely on Harris’s looks — he remarked on them in the context of her overall capabilities.
“You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you’d want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake,” the president said at the fundraiser heard round the world. “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.”
It would quote from Obama’s more over-the-top critics — New York Magazine’s Jonathan Chait, for instance, termed the remarks “disgraceful,” which seems dialed up awfully high — and suggest that the inevitable result of such commentary is to produce a cadre of hyper-cautious politicians, devoid of spark or humor.
I could write either of these columns, because I agree in part with both. And my ambivalent reaction to the Harris kerfuffle illustrates the continuing paradox of modern gender politics.
Of course looks matter, in politics as in business. In America and other countries, physically attractive candidates — male and female — outperform less attractive peers. But for female politicians, the issue of looks is more complicated. They must learn to navigate the treacherous line between looking good (a plus) and looking sexy (dangerous), being attractive without being distracting.
A female politician is, inevitably, going to devote more attention to her appearance than is her male counterpart. Inevitably, because voters — female and male — are going to pay more attention to her clothes, or whether she’s gained (or lost) a few pounds, or whether she is, in Obama’s words, “the best-looking attorney general in the country.” Harris no doubt took pains with her hair and makeup before heading to the fundraiser where the president made those remarks.
But it is simultaneously true that the role of attractiveness, especially when it comes to women in politics, remains the phenomenon that dare not speak its name. Obama’s real fault wasn’t being sexist — it was committing political malpractice. This wasn’t a gaffe on the scale of Hillary Clinton being likable enough, but it was still awfully dumb. You can think it, but you can’t say it, especially when you are the president.