“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.”
-Ancient Greece (third century BCE)
“Beauty is only skin deep.”
-Sir Thomas Overbury (1613, commenting on his wife)
“She’s brilliant, and she’s dedicated; she’s tough. She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney-general in the country.”
-Barack Obama, attempting to praise California Attorney General Kamala Harris
President Obama is either a sexist pig or an anachronistic admirer of women, depending on your perspective. I will be completely candid and tell you that whatever he is, I am in triplicate. I love brilliant, dedicated, tough women, and if they happen to appeal to me as good-looking, so much the better.
But Obama’s gaffe last week was not in what he thinks about women like Kamala Harris; it’s about what he said about her and might say about others. Gone are the days when it was considered complimentary to comment favorably on a woman’s physical appearance. I’m not talking about the wolfish whistle or the fraternity hoot. Just an old-fashioned compliment like, “I must say that you are a stunningly beautiful woman” is no longer an acceptable comment, even if it is meant to be a straight-forward statement.
I discussed the president’s remark and the reaction to it at a dinner party last weekend with a number of women who had followed the story. Most of them expressed disgust, not with the president’s comment about Ms. Harris, but about the “politically-correct” reaction to it. None of these women were offended by it or thought it was anything other than a complimentary statement that they would be happy to have a man say about them.
I explained what I understand to be the feminist reaction to it: It demeans a woman to focus on her physical appearance because it diminishes (or ignores) her talents as a human being and makes her an object of sexual appeal instead of a person of respect. Women who have achieved (or are striving to achieve) a mark in their careers or professions do not want to be demeaned by comments that have nothing to do with their aspirations but instead flow from the male libido.
The women at the party, most of whom were successful in their careers or professions, scoffed at the PC explanation. They thought Ms. Harris, if she were honest, would scoff at it, too. (Ms. Harris did issue a statement to the effect that she wasn’t offended by the president’s remarks, although whether that may have been the political thing to say or her true feelings is unclear.)
My take on this latest presidential “sex” scandal (at least it isn’t of the Monica Lewinsky variety) is that it is a conundrum of some moment to be an old-school male with a feminist political perspective in our new millennial age of sexual equality and gender neutrality. Gone are the days when appreciating physical beauty was appropriate discourse. Now, the best a man can do is to compliment a dress or a piece of jewelry, and even then the comment must not appear sexist, as in, “that dress really looks great on you.” Instead, the PC comment would be, “that’s a beautiful dress.” The difference is that the first comment suggests it’s the body under the dress that is being admired, while the second presumably would be said no matter who was wearing the dress.
The reality is that sexism is still very much alive in more than the intended compliment of a political gaffe. We are still a country that pays less (generally) to a woman for the same work that a man does and that still has far fewer women in positions of authority (in both business and politics) than men. A recent article in a legal periodical warned women that there is still a glass ceiling in the legal profession, and the above-the-line partnership lists of most law firms bear out that fact.
The commentary on the death of Margaret Thatcher earlier this week praised her as a powerful Prime Minister in the mold of Winston Churchill, but they also noted that she has not been succeeded in that office by another woman, nor is one on the horizon who is a strong candidate to assume the post. Hillary Clinton may run for president again in 2016, but that hardly guarantees her election (or even her nomination).
This form of sexism has nothing to do with sex or the male libido. Instead, it flows from a traditional attitude/prejudice that is deeply engrained in America’s culture and history. Women are home-makers; men are bread-winners. That’s the attitude that keeps glass ceilings in place and results in talented women being denied positions that men would be given. It isn’t a question of whether they are physically attractive or look good in a particular dress. It’s more deep-seated in the psyche of the male-dominant society that is still prevalent, notwithstanding the advances women have made in the last generation.
But that conundrum does exist. Obama gets in trouble for an old-fashioned compliment that even many women today would be happy to have said about them but that must be considered insulting in the politically correct definition of sexist statements. Are we (I’m referring to men here) not supposed to admire your (women) efforts to look attractive? Is it, perhaps, as politically incorrect for you to make yourselves attractive as it is for us to notice that you are?
At the law school where I work, a female colleague, who would take Obama to task for his comments about Ms. Harris, went on a major diet a few years ago. She lost enough weight to look appreciably more fit, healthy, attractive. I felt comfortable in congratulating her for losing the weight, but dared not mention the difference in her physical appearance. But I admired it just the same.
Obama should have kept his comments about Ms. Harris professional and kept his thoughts about her physical appearance to himself, even if most women would be happy to be so grossly insulted.