I Feel Pretty… But Now’s Not The Time!

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President Obama and Attorney General Harris
(Photo from New York Post)

At first, I thought this was one of those topics getting most of its traction in the so-called “feminist blogosphere.” (I don’t know why that’s such a thing, but for some reason it is.) One of those little off-the-cuff remarks that gets seized upon as an example of what’s wrong with our culture in regards to women, but nobody else pays much thought to.

And then it made the headline of my news homepage when I opened my computer this morning: “Obama: Sorry for the ‘Best-Looking’ Comment.” And when I say headline, I mean top headline. This one outshone an article about bird flu in China and an exposé on the North Korean military.

Move over, Kim Jong Un. Unsolicited appearance-based comments are in town.

For those of you not familiar with the debacle (because a debacle it is, my friends), here’s the gist. At a fundraiser for the Democratic National Committee, President Obama was asked to introduce the Attorney General of California, Kamala Harris. Here are Mr. President’s remarks, which have made a small explosion on the Internet:

“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. It’s true! C’mon!”

Well, thanks so much, Mr. President, for reassuring us right off the bat that even though Ms. Harris is a woman, she is capable of performing a legal and professional job regardless of her gender. Oh yeah, but ain’t she a looker, though?

Oh, Obama. I love you, man. I voted for you in my first presidential election (yep, I’m a young’un that way). I watched the election results this November with my fingers crossed and did a quick victory lap down my hallway when I saw the Electoral College’s results. But…

No. Just… no.

Yeah, really not how we should be going about politics.

Yeah, really not how we should be going about politics.

Women (and men!) on the Internet have gotten up in arms over the President’s remarks. In the time it took me to copy and paste the link to tweets mentioning “Kamala Harris”, twenty more tweets had popped up at the top of the page. Twenty. In about thirty seconds. These remarks, however, go in both directions. The lovely people over at Fox and Friends provide the counterpoint to the firestorm of criticism that largely dominates Twitter (at least, my Twitter), which runs, to paraphrase:

Why are all these women so angry? Can’t they just take a compliment?

I’ve gotten into this argument (er… spirited debate) many times before. Is feminism making it impossible to tell a good-looking woman that she’s looking good? Is politeness and chivalry dead? Won’t we think about the children, who some days just want to be reassured that they look pretty? Are we not even allowed to sing West Side Story anymore because so much as saying the word “pretty” is the mother of all insults?

I like being told I’m pretty as much as the next girl. I had a bank teller a few weeks ago tell me that she thought the color of my eyes was beautiful. And that made me feel warm and fuzzy inside as I cashed my check and headed back to my car. I’m not telling anyone they’re not allowed to compliment women.

But there is a difference between complimenting women and demeaning women.

It’s all about intent, people. If you tell me I’m pretty because you want to pay me a compliment and make me feel good, then go ahead and tell me, “You have beautiful eyes,” or “I love your sense of style.” This is not the same thing as whistling at me as I walk to the library on a Saturday afternoon and cat-calling, “Hey baby! Why don’t you smile?”

I wasn’t put on this Earth to smile for you, random man. Sorry if that offends your machismo.

This is the only kind of cat call I want to see.

This is the only kind of cat call I want to see.

Harassment is not a compliment, nor is it something that was intended to be a compliment but simply went too far. Again, intent! Compliments are only compliments if they come from a place of positivity, not from a desire to inflict power or to belittle someone. Consider this infographic from stopstreetharassment.org. Can you tell the difference between the well-meant attempts to brighten someone’s day and the harassing comments meant to reduce a woman to a collection of body parts? Even if you’ve never been a victim of verbal harassment (and I hope you haven’t, even though between 80 and 90 percent of women have experienced catcalls or street harassment at some point), I’ll bet everything I’ve got that you can tell.

Now, I’m not suggesting that Obama’s “best-looking attorney general in the country” was on par with a creepy stranger on the corner trying to grope a passerby. I’m not saying that the President was participating in street harassment. There are various levels of inappropriateness, and in the scheme of things, this comment is relatively low.

But it reflects a problem that many of us are hesitant to admit exists.

Bringing in irrelevant and unsolicited commentary about a woman’s personal appearance to a context where the comments do not belong is inappropriate. Ms. Harris is a public servant, being recognized for her professionalism and her efficacy in performing her job. Would it not be just a mite inappropriate if, at Obama’s second inauguration, Justice Sotomayor had prefaced the oath of office with a breezy, “Now, I have to make sure I say that President Obama has been a champion for universal health care, immigration reform, and environmentally friendly practices. But damn, folks, would you get a look at the way he’s wearing that three-piece suit!”

If that makes you laugh at its sheer ridiculousness, think for a second about how it’s become so ingrained in our culture that women are supposed to enjoy being looked at that the President of the United States makes such comments without thinking about them.

So yes, skeptics, feminists can take a compliment. Tell me I can make a mean batch of chocolate chip cookies. Tell me you like what you’ve done to my hair today, if you know me. Tell me that my smile (if I’m already smiling!) makes your day. Hold a door open for me, if it floats your boat. I’ll do the same for you, if you’d like. Just don’t deny our ability to be professional and capable in any field. Do not conflate women with their appearances. Focus more on the “attorney general” bit than the “best-looking” bit.

If this is tough to swallow, I’m going to start making comments about Obama’s abs during each of his political appearances. We’ll see how it works out when the tables are turned.

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