It took me five attempts to decide on the title of this post, with each version growing progressively less snarky and more measured. Though I’m feeling rather put off by Obama’s boneheaded comments about California Attorney General Kamala Harris’ looks yesterday (note to POTUS: if the brain trust at Fox & Friends takes your side, consider it a bad sign) on balance I think President Obama is a friend to the ladies. In recognition of that, and out of respect for the office he holds, I refrained from dropping an f-bomb or any of the other expletives I might have employed were he merely, say, a House Member, or had a less distinguished record on women’s issues. So to those who will write to tell me to cut Obama some slack because Lilly Ledbetter, my response is: I AM cutting him some slack. That headline could have been much ruder.
Still, I find the uproar that followed his comments pretty interesting, not on the question of whether or not what he said was sexist, because I think it was, even though I believe Obama generally is not. What’s notable to me is how agitated certain segments of the commentariat—mostly, but not entirely, male—get at the mere suggestion that so-called “benign” sexism is, at the end of the day, still sexism, and therefore something we should try to root out. They get so mad! “CHILL OUT” they bellow in an extremely un-chill way, and, “learn to take a compliment!” We’re told that talking about women’s looks, even in public, even in a professional context, is harmless and that we, in typical feminist fashion, are getting worked up over nothing. But my question is, if these comments are so insignificant then why do men keep making them, despite ample feedback that many women find them unflattering, even offensive? Why do straight men cling so insistently to this last vestige of old school, marginally “acceptable” sexism? If publicly commenting on a woman’s appearance is so utterly meaningless, then why don’t dudes just give it up? And why do they get super huffy and defensive when they’re challenged on it?
I’d say it was because such comments, whether they’re pointed or offhand, whether they’re uttered by a women’s champion or a dyed-in-the-wool sexist, are still an overt and impressively efficient way for men to demonstrate their social power over women. It’s a way of saying hey, you may have a high-status job, or an advanced degree, but I still get to decide whether or not you’re pretty, and can announce it to everyone for no good reason. Incidentally, that 77-cents-to-the-dollar thing? Totally unrelated, so why don’t you just calm down? Obama is an especially interesting example of this phenomenon, not in spite of the fact that he seems pretty enlightened, but precisely because of that: he knows better and he still can’t resist, even though he’s been taken to task for similarly patronizing behavior before. Why hasn’t he learned this lesson, or put another way, why is this particular lesson so very hard to learn? If the habit is ingrained in a man as pro-feminist as President Obama, then what does it say about the power of this cultural convention? A lot, I think, which is why it’s worth calling out and examining.
So, do you think I’m being too hard on POTUS? Tell me in the comments!