President Barack Obama’s comments about the attractiveness of California Attorney General Kamala Harris set off a discussion about whether men should compliment women on our looks. However, the larger point is about what focusing on women’s appearance means for how we are perceived.
Can men not give women compliments anymore? That’s the question that’s being asked a lot since President Barack Obama started getting some heat for his remarks on the appearance of California Attorney General Kamala Harris. At a speech during a Democratic National Committee fundraising lunch, President Obama said of Harris, “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. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.”
So what’s the problem here? Many believe that President Obama simply gave AG Harris a nice compliment and that should be the end of it. Why, they wonder, are some making such a big deal out of this? If only it were as simple as saying something nice about how someone looks. But it isn’t. Instead, such comments are a perfect example of how power is managed.
People who look at others are the ones with power. Bosses look at underlings, parents look after children and doctors look at patients. What do you do if you want to dominate someone? You stare them down. Thus, it is the looker who holds all the cards. And men tend to look at women more than women look at men. However, it doesn’t stop there. Not only do men look at women but they also act as judge and jury as to whether they like what they see, whether a woman’s appearance meets their standards. And then they comment on it, as if women’s appearance is all that there is to us and as if they have the right to do so; it is the mark of their privilege.
There are plenty of examples of this, from politics and sports to television and movies. Speaker of the New York City Council and mayoral candidate Christine Quinn tells stories about how Mayor Michael Bloomberg comments negatively on her flat shoes and graying hair, as well as positively remarking on the assets of other women standing nearby. When President Obama was shaking the hand of Republican assemblywoman Nicole Malliotakis, he told her that she didn’t look a day over 23. In response to a joke about her becoming a Democrat, he followed up with, “Come on, honey! I said you’re pretty! I said you look 23!”
ESPN commentator Brent Musburger got into trouble for some comments he made about Katherine Webb, the girlfriend of University of Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron. As the camera showed Ms Webb in the stands, Musburger turned to co-announcer Kirk Herbstreit, a former quarterback at Ohio State University, and said: “You quarterbacks, you get all the good-looking women. What a beautiful woman.”
One of the main characters in the television show Justified is Ava, who is a smart, capable and funny woman. Yet almost every time a new male character meets her, he has to mention how beautiful she is. Even a thug running past her found the time to yell out, “You’re a fine looking woman!” Similarly, actress Scarlett Johansson got irritated when, instead of asking her questions about her superhero character, the press focused on how she looked. Her male costars got questions about their characters’ history and motivation yet she was only asked about her outfit.
And these are just examples of people in the public eye. There are plenty of men in business, education, medicine or just on the street whose sharing of their judgments about women’s appearances goes unremarked. Many probably think that they’re being nice and they don’t seem to understand that such a focus has many more implications for women than it does for men.
When men get complimented for their looks, most either accept it or laugh it off and then move on. It isn’t a big deal because it doesn’t affect how people view their worth. The same is not true for women. For too many years, a woman’s beauty has been the criterion by which her worth has been judged. This is why so many women spend so much time on their hair, makeup and dress. We know that we must be good-looking in order to have something worthwhile to contribute. If we are not, then we become the butt of jokes and the recipients of harsh criticism, people unworthy of respect.
We are only too aware that the flip side of a compliment is an insult. To wit: in reading the comments following articles about President Obama’s comments on Kamala Harris, everyone seems to agree that Ms Harris is beautiful (as if that is the point) but once someone mentions former US Attorney General Janet Reno, the gloves come off. Ms Reno is a Harvard educated lawyer who has a lot of accomplishments to her name yet, because of her appearance, she is treated very poorly. Knowing that this kind of harsh treatment is what is in store for us should we fail to look as beautiful as we can, looks become our currency, something to be nurtured and valued. And this emphasis can lead to a whole host of problems, including self-esteem difficulties, eating disorders, excessive consumerism or maybe just a greater focus on the way we look versus on the things that make us happy.
And it isn’t just our worth that rests on our beauty (or lack thereof); it’s our competency too. Men’s success is rarely dependent on their attractiveness, but the same is not true for women. For us, it can be a double-edged sword. If a woman is both talented and beautiful, her success is often judged critically, with many assuming that she got ahead because of her looks and charm. However, if a woman is older or not as attractive, then her appearance is used as a reason to deny her success. Just go back and take a look at the press coverage of the 2008 election. Sarah Palin’s beauty was emphasized while the media excoriated Hillary Clinton for her “cankles,” pantsuits, hairstyle, and age. One guy even suggested that she shouldn’t become President because no one wants to see a woman get older while in office.
For women politicians, it may even affect their ability to get work. A recent study demonstrated that any kind of focus on a female candidate’s appearance — positive or negative — may cost her votes. It could be that when voters are reminded of how a female candidate looks, they stop focusing on the things that make her a viable choice for office. You know, things like the brilliance, dedication and toughness that President Obama had to be careful to say about Kamala Harris before he mentioned the truly important part.
And that’s why this matters. In the last few days, I’ve read several editorials and comments from people, even feminists, who are irritated by the dust up over President Obama’s remarks. There are more important issues we should be focusing on! Why are we getting upset about Seth McFarlane’s I Saw Your Boobs song at the Oscars or the fact that President Obama called someone beautiful? The answer is this: because it’s all part of the same thing; it’s all about how we perceive and treat women. If you believe that women are there for men to look at, that our appearance is one of the most important aspects about us, then our value is external. As such, what we want for ourselves, the things we seek to achieve that are not relevant to our appearance — things like reproductive freedom, access to high quality and affordable childcare, an end to violence against women, equal pay — are not priorities for those in charge.
Perhaps it is this difference in priorities that drives some of the sexism in our society. If men in Hollywood care mostly about seeing breasts, then they probably don’t care to hire women directors, producers and writers who are unlikely to disrobe. And if President Obama cares more about what women look like versus what they can do, then maybe that explains why he has so few women working in his administration this term, and why he suggests cutting something like Social Security, which disproportionately affects elderly women. I think we’ll truly know that women have achieved real equality when men stop talking about how we look and start listening to what we say.