That Time The President Made You Feel Sort of… Ugh

Kamala Harris and President Obama

I know, I know.  You probably think this is ridiculous.  You think “people like me” are taking this too far.

They’re besties!  She IS really attractive!  He said all those other nice, non-demeaning things BEFORE he said she was pretty!  I love rationalizing away my true feelings!  I’ve been taught to ignore the oppression I see and that voicing opinions isn’t attractive!

While all of those things may be true, it doesn’t disqualify the fact that when I read it–

“She’s brilliant and she’s dedicated, she’s tough…She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general… C’mon!  It’s true!”

–I winced.  I felt uncomfortable.  It just didn’t feel right.

Instead of just negating my (& many others’) emotions about this (or anything), and instead of rationalizing it away, let’s figure out WHY some of us felt uncomfortable.

For pretty much the last 3,000 years, the value of women has been determined by how well they please men.  Beauty is a big part of that.  As The Atlantic‘s Garance Frankie-Ruta points out,

Harris, like Michelle Obama, is a triumph in the system of beauty as well as the system of power. But President Obama’s remark mistook the setting. Just as it’s perfectly appropriate to tell a colleague she looks gorgeous when she’s dressed to the nines for some black tie work event, it would be inappropriate to refer to her as “gorgeous over there” during a work meeting. Doing so takes her out of the system of power and puts her into the system of beauty in a setting in which power is the value that’s brought her to the table.

Recently, however, we’ve been working on that whole thing.  Ya know, getting the vote, demanding to be able to work if we so choose, not getting constantly harassed by male co-workers.  We’ve made progress, but we still live in a very patriarchal society.

So when the President of the United States makes a comment about an attorney general’s appearance, it strikes a nerve.  Why?  Because it’s a form of “benevolent sexism.”

We define benevolent sexism as a set of interrelated attitudes toward women that are sexist in terms of viewing women stereotypically and in restricted roles but that are subjectively positive in feeling tone (for the perceiver) and also tend to elicit behaviors typically categorized as prosocial (e.g., helping) or intimacy-seeking (e.g., self-disclosure) (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491).

[Benevolent sexism is] a subjectively positive orientation of protection, idealization, and affection directed toward women that, like hostile sexism, serves to justify women’s subordinate status to men (Glick et al., 2000, p. 763).

Benevolent sexism is not necessarily experienced as benevolent by the recipient. For example, a man’s comment to a female coworker on how ‘cute’ she looks, however well-intentioned, may undermine her feelings of being taken seriously as a professional (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491-492). 

There are just so, so many reasons the President’s comment was inappropriate, I don’t have time to address them all,  but these articles cover some of them:  “Why Don’t Women Like It When You Tell Them They’re Hot, In Public?” or “Obama’s Kamala Harris ‘best looking’ comment crossed the line” or “Why Obama’s ‘Best-Looking Attorney General’ Comment Was a Gaffe.”

Now on to his apology.

Ugh.  Good try.  You almost got me.  He’s, like, half-way there.

The President (via his press secretary, because that’s how it works) apologized for the “distraction” it caused.  He didn’t apologize for commenting on something as irrelevant as an attorney general’s appearance.  He didn’t apologize for subjugating a very well-respected woman to the “stereotypically restricted” role she (& her predecessors) has been forced to either fit into or be punished for the last 3,000 years.  He apologized for everyone else taking it wrong.  And when a reporter asked, “You don’t think he messed up with what he said?” Press Secretary Carney repeated that the President apologized for making a distraction.

Nope.  Sorry.  That’s not how good apologies work.  A good apology takes responsibility for one’s own actions, NOT apologizing for the reactions of others.  Nor does it apologize and then justify one’s actions in the very same breath.  Or put another way, “Apology involves the acknowledgement of injury with the acceptance of responsibility, affect (felt regret or shame—the person must mean it), and vulnerability—the risking of an  acknowledgement without excuses.”

I’m going to need for you to do better than that.  Especially when the research finds, “Benevolent sexism was a significant predictor of nationwide gender inequality, independent of the effects of hostile sexism.”  When the President i sparticipating in benevolent sexism, what does that say about the state of our union?  That’s your job, Mr. President.  To help fix that.  So acknowledge that you didn’t think your comments through all the way.  Acknowledge that you made a mistake.  Acknowledge that you learned from this.  No excuses.

I know this is hard for some people to wrap their heads around, especially men.  Like the President, you think you’re just being nice.  You don’t hate women.  You’re not trying to exert your inherent societal power over us.  But just because you don’t mean to doesn’t mean you aren’t.  I’m just asking you to think about it.  I don’t expect everyone to be perfect all the time, but if you think you’re an ally to the feminist cause, I do expect you to try.  To learn.  To not tell us our feelings are wrong.  Did this incident keep me up last night?  No.  Am I demanding that the President return his feminism card?  No.  Do I think this is worth discussing?  Absolutely.

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