gender roles

I Passed Up a Career in STEM for an English Degree—Here’s Why That Doesn’t Make Me a Bad Feminist

Yep, that's my copy of The Waste Land. Guys, go read that poem. I'll wait.

Yep, that’s my copy of The Waste Land. Guys, go read that poem. I’ll wait.

 

As a feminist, sometimes a newly minted humanities degree can feel a bit like a scarlet letter. After all, one of our current battlegrounds is proportional representation in STEM fields (that’s Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math for the acronym-disinclined). If you have the privilege to attend a four-year university, shouldn’t you dedicate yourself to closing the gender gap in these historically male-centric professions? And besides, don’t you ever want to have a job? Or do you like Starbucks that much?

Thanks, imaginary questioner of my life choices. Some advice: never tell a recent graduate they should’ve chosen a different field, particularly not when 40% of the unemployed are Millennials as of June 2014. That’s 4.6 million recent graduates who don’t find your faux-concern helpful.

But I can’t dismiss these concerns out of hand. As feminists, we protest—and rightly so—the lack of diversity in major Silicon Valley firms and startups. According to USA Today, the gender divide is pretty pathetic: from Facebook to Apple, Google to Twitter, they hover at around 70% male. (For reference, the total US population is 49% male.) Mind you, race is an additional issue here, since tech industries range between 70-90% white and Asian. And, of course, the intersection of race and gender provides a different lens with which to view the problem.

Yes, girls should be encouraged to pursue their passions in mechanical engineering or computer science or microbiology. We should promote toys that allow children all along the gender spectrum to experiment with what they like and what careers they might pursue. This means making female scientist play sets, and not just as a limited edition, LEGO. This means more products like Goldieblox that urge girls to develop problem solving and spatial reasoning skills, even though such toys are still generally marketed toward boys. I’m all for programs like Girls Who Code, and think that STEM education should be as gender-neutral as building blocks.

But I think embracing social sciences and the humanities can be just as much of a feminist choice as attending MIT to study programming.

Here’s the thing: in high school, I was pretty good at math. I could graph cosines and tangents. At one point, I even knew what cosines and tangents were, conceptually. (Alas, those days are gone.) Had I gone on to get a degree in computer science and work for IBM, I probably would have done fine. Guidance councilors and teachers certainly thought so, from the extent they pressured me to go for it. But I knew I would have been miserable.

So I didn’t. I took creative writing instead of chemistry, Romantic poetry instead of the “hard sciences.” Four years later, here I am, proud owner of a BA in English and Creative Writing (and so many gently used classic novels it’s probably a fire hazard). Yep, that’s right, folks: the humanities aren’t dead. Even if sometimes it feels like I’m single-handedly keeping them alive. Chat with me for thirty minutes and you’re bound to hear a Shakespeare pun slip into our conversation. Most likely, more than one.

Why is maintaining the “feelings and humanities are for the ladies, numbers and science are for the menfolk” status quo not mean I have to turn in my Feminist Card? Glad you asked.

Logically, we have to start by defining what we consider feminism. My working definition, inspired by the one, the only bell hooks: the practice of combatting gender-based oppression, or oppression based at the intersection of gender and other aspects of identity.

Gender-based oppression includes many things, but the one I want to focus on here is the devaluation of things deemed “feminine.” You know what I’m talking about. The phrase “throw like a girl” is an insult because if a girl does it, it’s got to be bad. Female emotion is trivialized, because if a girl is upset, she’s either hysterical, not to be taken seriously, or on her period. (Worth noting how cis-sexist that last one is. Even if the seat of emotion was the uterus, not all women have menstrual cycles, folks). Our society shames boys who cry, play with dolls, or wear pink, because those are all associated with something no one should ever be, if they can avoid it: feminine.

Literature, sociology, philosophy, languages, history, all these social sciences and humanities deal with subjects and experiences we’ve categorized as female. They treat the human psyche, the experience of emotions. They discuss theories of love and value and motivation and behavior. They talk about interpersonal relationships and social phenomenon. Humanities and social sciences are cultural: science and math are universal.

Does this make them less valuable?

Don’t we need the ability to look at a text or an advertisement or a speech and see its latent meanings and influences? Media literacy and awareness of social biases are crucial, and that skill set is almost indistinguishable from that of a humanities major.

Does the ability to develop complex, abstract reasoning and express it in clear, lucid prose have no place in our society? Well, if we look at the incomprehensible emails in our inbox or that poorly fact-checked web article we read this morning, we might think so. But identifying a need for change goes nowhere without enabling others to understand your point.

Feminism isn’t (or shouldn’t be) about privileging one type of life plan over another. Pro-choice feminism isn’t about making sure everyone gets an abortion, but rather making sure everyone has the possibility of having one if they so choose. The workplace equality movement isn’t about making sure every stay-at-home mom morphs into a CEO of a Fortune 500 company, but that social and bureaucratic barriers preventing her from doing so are removed. Same with feminism geared toward STEM parity. The point isn’t that girls pursuing science-based careers are more valued than those interested in marketing or grant writing or fashion design, but that it shouldn’t be systematically more difficult for them to do so than for men.

We need scientists and engineers and mathematicians and astrophysicists, perhaps more than ever. No one’s questioning the dire need for reformed climate policy (well, some people are, but I digress) or infrastructural improvements across the globe. But we also need writers and thinkers and philosophers and journalists and artists. Let’s value “feminine” traits as well as “masculine” ones, soft sciences as well as hard ones. Let’s make our feminism inclusive, where the most important thing isn’t the differences in our interests, but the force of our passions that destroys all boundaries placed around them.

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Five Lessons the Media Can Learn from Welcome to Night Vale

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Warning: there be spoilers ahead. If you haven’t listened to the podcast yet, you have been warned.

A friendly desert community where the sun is hot, the moon is beautiful, and mysterious lights pass overhead while we all pretend to sleep. Welcome… to Night Vale.

If an ambient snare / hi-hat / piano melody is playing in your head right now, then you’re already familiar with the podcast Welcome to Night Vale. If you’ve ever opened up a Tumblr dashboard, chances are good you’ve at least heard of the bi-monthly storytelling extravaganza by Jeffrey Cranor and Joseph Fink that, over the past two-odd years, has taken over the iTunes podcast charts, Comic-Cons, and my life. And if none of these things are true, what are you even doing with your time. Go listen to this podcast.

As a feminist writer and fiction junkie, I look for two things in my media: quality storytelling, and a basic adherence to the principles of equality, social justice, and representation. Now, it’s not necessary that something holds these principles up 100% of the time for me to fall in love with it. You can love media and still criticize it at the same time. Guys. I watched every episode of four seasons of The Real Housewives of New Jersey. I know.

(Team Jacqueline. Anyway.)

But the beautiful thing about Night Vale is that it doesn’t ask me to compromise. Amid its gloriously self-referential, convoluted storylines that somehow intersect with the fulfilling eclectic fatality of a tweaked-out spider’s web (listeners: I’m torn between Nazar al-Mujaheed and Marcus Vanston’s coffee table as my favorite bits), Night Vale’s creators make efforts toward dismantling the kyriarchy on a bi-weekly basis. And guys, it is awesome.

I could make a list of hundreds of tips mainstream media could take from Night Vale Community Radio, but this is a blog post, not a manifesto. So, here are five awesome elements of the podcast that make my feminist heart sing.

1. LGBTQ Representation, Without the Drama

Night Vale’s central romance takes place between Cecil, the velvet-voiced radio host, and the perfectly imperfect Carlos, seemingly surnamed The Scientist. Now, that’s a step in and of itself, since gay relationships are often mined as campy comic relief (Will and Grace, though long off the air, comes immediately to mind) or angst-ridden existential crises and ultimate tragedy.

This isn’t to deny the weight and gravity LGBTQ folks face when coming out in our homophobic society. I’m not suggesting that discounting the serious struggles homophobia creates is the way to go.

But as a counterpoint: science fiction and storytelling are just that: fictionAnd Night Vale invents a world in which being gay is exactly as interesting as being straight, or being a five-headed dragon. (Okay, it’s a little less interesting than being a dragon.) Cecil and Carlos’ romance develops as a caring, nuanced, consensual, unbelievably adorable relationship between two adults for whom sexuality is just another aspect of their identity, not something that needs to be questioned or torn apart or defended to anyone.

My favorite example is what can, if you squint, be called Cecil’s coming-out. The character Old Woman Josie asks him why they don’t go bowling like they used to. Cecil replies,

“I don’t know. There has been a tiny underground army living under the bowling alley, and they’ve declared war on all of us. They injured my new boyfriend. Also, I have a new boyfriend. Listen, we should totally get the team back together and go to League Night again.”

That’s what I mean. There’s so much craziness going on in Night Vale that a radio host’s sexuality could seriously not be less of an issue. Looking at our own current events, there’s a lesson there for us to think about.

2. Saying No to Whitewashed Casting

I don’t know a single listener that doesn’t have a small crush on Carlos the Scientist, possibly because Cecil, our narrator, “fell in love instantly” the moment Carlos entered town. He fell in love with Carlos’ perfect eyes, his perfect teeth like a military cemetery, his perfect hair (especially his perfect hair). And Carlos, quite unequivocally, is hispanic. Take that, mainstream media’s tendency to whitewash sympathetic characters (cough cough Exodus: Gods and Kings).

As if this wasn’t already pretty awesome, there’s the casting of Carlos’ voice actor to take into account. To begin with, Carlos was voiced by co-creator Jeffrey Cranor. But following that, latino actor Dylan Marron was recast into the role. Why? In Cranor’s words,

“It sucks that there’s a white straight male (me), playing a gay man of color (Carlos).”

And Dylan Marron is fabulous. Let’s not forget that. And his hair, folks, actually is perfect.

3. WOC in Central, Awesome Roles

I talked about this recently: guys, fantasy and sci-fi requires you to invent a world from the ground up. If you’re putting dragons into it, what the hell is stopping you from making important, central, well-developed characters of color?

Oh. White privilege and social racism. That might be it.

Remember the controversy when Rue from The Hunger Games, despite being described as having “dark brown skin,” was cast as black? Proof that society has conditioned us to expect sympathetic characters to be white, regardless of what their physical descriptions read as.

Night Vale is a radio show, after all, so we rely on narration and our own imaginations, but Fink and Cranor make a deliberate point of specifying that certain characters cannot default to white. One of these, and by far a fan favorite, is the unbearably kick-ass Tamika Flynn.

Tamika Flynn is every English major’s spirit animal. Her weapons of choice are a slingshot and heavily notated copies of classic lit. She leads children from the summer reading program in a battle against an evil corporate bureaucracy. She’s a revolutionary mastermind who hides throwing stars in copies of Willa Cather. And have I mentioned she’s thirteen?

Have I also mentioned that she’s a woman of color, voiced by two voice actresses, Flor De Liz Perez and Symphony Sanders, who are also women of color?

Have I also mentioned that she’s amazing?

4. Women In Political Office and Positions of Power

All right, “positions of power” is a little vague, because Night Vale is run by a mysterious otherworldly force probably lurking in a canyon. But the fact remains that both mayors in the series, as well as one of the candidates during election season, are female. Just as with Cecil and Carlos’ relationship, no one in the series has any problem with this.

There’s no endless dwelling on Mayor Pamela Winchell’s choice of skirt or pantsuit. There’s no concern that she won’t be able to carry out her duties because her daughter had a baby and who wants a grandma for a mayor? Being female, as being of color or being gay or bi or gender-nonconforming or without a face, is simply a non-issue.

Another tip that our media could take from Pamela Winchell’s emergency press conferences. Report the issues, not the mayor’s cleavage.

5. Speaking Out Against Cultural Appropriation

If you’ve looked at an Urban Outfitters catalogue, been to or read about Coachella, or watched a Katy Perry music video recently, you’re pretty well aware with the concept of cultural appropriation: taking a phenomenon, belief, or cultural practice from a group of people to which you do not belong and taking it in a one-sided and non-mutual colonial-style transaction. For a really clear and valuable explanation of the difference between liking sushi and exploiting someone’s culture, I recommend this article from Everyday Feminism.

Night Vale is having none of this. We are introduced to the Apache Tracker, who is universally regarded as a “huge jerk” for walking around in a cartoonishly inaccurate Native American headdress and claiming to possess “Indian magicks.” It’s recognized by the whole town that he’s taken a symbol with great cultural importance and just tossed it on his head for the sake of insensitive, tone-deaf, and racist ass-hattery.

Another glorious allusion to this very issue came in an episode from just a few days ago (I was listening to it while going for a jog and fist-pumped a little bit on the sidewalk):

“[Pamela Winchell cracked her whip] like in that popular and heartwarming series of adventure movies about a wisecracking archaeologist who comically destroys countless important artifacts under the hilarious misapprehension that they belong in his museum rather than in the religious sites of the cultures that made them.”

And then on to a discussion of the dubious existence of angels. It takes artistry and writing skills to work political and social commentary into a show while still making it entertaining and making me laugh.

You know what it doesn’t take? “Indian Magicks.”

——

Night Vale listeners: what would you add to this list? Do you have any critiques or suggestions for areas of improvement in the podcast? I’d love to hear them if you do.

Stay tuned next for the sound of your own breathing, filtered through a lifetime of regret, indecision, and missed opportunities.

Good night, readers. Good night.

The Scariest Thing You Can Be Is Free To Choose

So it’s been a little while since I’ve been able to put together a post. Not for lack of material to write about or problems that need to be torn down, more a lack of time and energy to get out of bed in the morning. College life is catching up with me, and all too often I just want to curl up in bed and watch Netflix for three hours and escape from the papers and exams that need to get done in the (very) near future.

But then I saw this video this afternoon between exams and classes, and I knew that I couldn’t write a better Halloween-themed post than this if I tried. I’ll let it speak for itself, since these four ladies are more than capable of getting their message across. This piece of slam poetry comes from the Brave New Voices Grand Slam Finals from this year in Washington, D.C. And, more immediately, from Upworthy.

Whether you decide to go out on Halloween night as a sexy kitten or as Susan B. Anthony, just make sure it’s your choice. Because that’s the scariest thing you can be to some people: capable of making your own decisions and owning your own body for what it is.

And those are the people worth scaring.

Happy Halloween, to those of you who celebrate. As for me, I’ll probably spend it in my apartment, eating half-price Snickers bars and watching Hocus Pocus while quietly waiting for the hoopla to be over.

Be well, and hopefully I’ll be back soon with longer posts when people stop expecting me to write them term papers.

I’ve Got 99 Problems And Today, Robin Thicke Is All Of Them

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Oh, Robin Thicke. I know the odds of you reading this are one in a million, but wherever you are, know that I’m shaking my head at you and sighing. Repeatedly.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, I’m sure you’ve seen the controversy swirling around Thicke’s new music video for the song “Blurred Lines.” How it’s the most misogynistic video to emerge out of the swamp that is VH1 since the dawn of time immemorial, how “kind of rapey” it is, and my personal favorite headline on the subject, “Robin Thicke’s New Video Is Horrible, Misogynist Bullshit.”

But thanks to my awkward leave of absence from the world of American music videos, I didn’t actually get to view the video in its entirety until this morning.

And today, I’ve got 99 problems, and Robin Thicke is all of them.

Let’s not talk about how irritatingly catchy the song is, because that’s not the point. The point here is, we have four and a half minutes of three fully clothed men following at least half a dozen women dressed in white plastic and flesh-colored thongs around, whispering in their ear, rubbing their faces against their feet, and murmuring repeatedly, “you know you want it.” There may or may not be a repeated segment with one of the women twirling around a rope of sausages like an Indiana Jones whip.

The scary part? This is in the VH1 version. There’s an unrated version.

What? Is this real life?

Now, anyone who has ever even toyed with the idea of being a feminist (and for the record, anyone who can pass this simple test pretty much is a feminist, whatever you call yourself) can see what the problem with this video is. I don’t know if I need to say it, but I will, for the sake of being thorough.

Showing three-quarters-naked women in plastic wrap riding bicycles backwards and basically humping a giant stuffed dog is not art. This is soft-core porn. Not even that soft, really. It’s another excuse to take women’s clothes off and look at them like sex toys, and anyone who thinks that this is breaking any new ground in music videos is not paying attention. But it’s a shock when an artist is just so blatant about it.

The source of the other 98 problems I’m having with Robin Thicke at the moment stem from his response to accusations of misogyny, sexism, and implied rape in his video. (For the record: if you have to say “you know you want it” eighteen times in the same song, she doesn’t want it. And if you take it, that’s rape.) Let’s look at the slap in the face that Thicke seems to think is an appropriate response to these claims:

“The idea was when we made this song, we had nothing but the most respect for women… We had no idea that it would stir this much controversy. We only had the best intentions.”

“I think that’s what great art does — it’s supposed to stir conversation, it’s supposed to make us talk about what’s important and what the relationships between men and women are. If you listen to the lyrics, it says, ‘That man is not your maker.’ It’s actually a feminist movement within itself. It’s saying that women and men are equals as animals and as power. It doesn’t matter if you’re a good girl or a bad girl, you can still have a good time.”

Let’s repeat that last bit in bold italics for the sake of clarity.

“It’s actually a feminist movement within itself. It’s saying that women and men are equals as animals and as power.”

Sorry, but no. It’s actually not saying that.

What it’s saying is that women’s power comes from the ability to stimulate desire in men, and men’s power comes from being able to seize that desire. Especially if that desire comes coated in plastic and rides a bicycle in place for no particular reason.

The video’s director, Diane Martel (oh my God this video was directed by a woman), has this to say defending her “work of art” against those overly sensitive people who think this is degrading to women:

“I wanted to deal with the misogynist, funny lyrics in a way where the girls were going to overpower the men… It also forces the men to feel playful and not at all like predators. I directed the girls to look into the camera, this is very intentional and they do it most of the time; they are in the power position. I don’t think the video is sexist. The lyrics are ridiculous, the guys are silly as fuck. That said, I respect women who are watching out for negative images in pop culture and who find the nudity offensive, but I find [the video] meta and playful.”

You know what would put women in power? Possibly not treating them like sex objects or having them play with strands of sausages while sticking their tongues out.

The biggest problem here is this. Okay, let’s take Thicke and Martel at their words that this is supposed to be some kind of feminist statement. Hang with me here. If this is supposed to be ironic and playful and tongue-in-cheek, I literally cannot think of a worse way to go about it. Here’s what I imagine the thought process would be like in such a meeting:

“You know how women are constantly being objectified and over-sexualized in the media?”
“Yeah, you know what, I’ve noticed that.”
“You know what would be a good way to draw attention to that and flip the power dynamics set up by patriarchy?”
“…Let the women dominate the men? Or maybe do a video that’s not about someone trying to force sex out of someone else, because that not only reinforces the fact that women are only good for giving men pleasure but also helps contribute to rape culture?”
“No, silly! Make the women even more objectified and over-sexualized! People will totally tell that we’re being ironic and socially aware when we give them exactly what they’ve been told they want to the nth degree, right?”
“You’re a genius! Clearly this is why you work in Hollywood!”

I exaggerate, but only slightly.

If treating women like walking, not-talking sexual objects ripe for the taking by any man who can whisper suggestive comments in their ear for five minutes straight is a feminist movement, then I think I need to get myself a new mission in life. Fortunately, I don’t think feminism will take this bait and welcome Robin Thicke with open arms.

No matter how many times he tells us that “we know we want to.”

Body Pacifism At War: Silence and Sexual Assault

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I didn’t think it was going to happen. At least, not on this trip.

I’m not the kind of girl who keeps pepper spray in her bag and continually thinks the worst is going to happen, but I did take a self-defense course in college. I read frequently about rape culture and sexual assault. I speak out against street harassment and the oppressive nature of the patriarchy that makes women into objects of sexual attraction. I know all of this.

And yet, I didn’t expect to know a friend who was sexually assaulted.

It happened while traveling. A friend of mine was followed, groped, kissed, and cornered by a group of drunk men after a gay pride parade. They would not take no for an answer, and my friend was forced to push them away and run, using another friend as a decoy significant other to try and ward off the men’s attention. We’re lucky that my friend escaped to this extent, but it’s still a harrowing experience to think about, something that I know has affected my friend more than they’re letting on.

My friend, by the way, is a nineteen-year-old male.

Not that this should matter.

Sexual assault, while a gender-based crime, does not discriminate along male-female lines. The myth that men and boys cannot be victims of sexual assault is pervasive (they must have wanted it; men always want sex; men are strong enough to get away and would have done so if they really were uncomfortable), and so it is hardly surprising that the vast majority of resources about how to support sexual assault survivors is female-directed.

But this doesn’t help my friend, or the other men who are trying to grapple with this invasion of their selfhood, this loss of control, without anyone to help them.

What makes it worse is that while survivor support for men is dramatically lacking, victim-blaming is not.

So much of what society tells us about how to prevent sexual assault comes from a place of concern. We are told not to walk alone at night. We are told to keep our phones in our hands, ready to dial 911 at a moment’s provocation. We are told to always have a safe ride, a backup plan, one form or another of self-defense up our sleeve in case we meet a sketchy stranger in a back alley.

All of these are practical ideas. They give us some feeling of safety, and allow us to regain some form of control. In a situation when our feelings of safety and control are being forcibly removed from us, this feeling is invaluable.

But it’s important for us to remember that while all these things can be helpful, what happens is not the victim’s fault.

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We shouldn’t be telling survivors not to be assaulted, we should be telling assaulters not to assault.

While the society in which we live doesn’t allow us the liberty to frolic through dark alleys at three in the morning, footloose and fancy-free, what all this focus on prevention does is, on some level, blame the recipient of the harassment for allowing themselves to be placed in that position. Our bodies are a safe space, and that any attempt to enter that safe space without express permission is a violation and a crime on the part of the violator.

Any attempt to teach us otherwise is false, cruel, and unacceptable.

I called this blog The Body Pacifist because our world, as it appears to me, is engaged in a perpetual state of body warfare. Not only are our bodies expected to look a certain way, take up a certain amount of space, exist within a certain gender paradigm, but they are considered public property by people who have no right to enter our most private spaces. “No means no” is not enough.

Our bodies belong to us. They are the vehicles in which we carry ourselves through the world, day in and day out. Just because their shape does not define who we are does not mean that they are not an intrinsic part of who we are, or that we are not entitled to decide what does and does not get to happen to them.

Our bodies are part of ourselves. And I refuse to let anyone tell me otherwise, whether it be well-meaning advice or outside force.

For the record, I am absolutely, physically fine. I was in a different part of the country from my friend when this event happened, looking at cows and sheep and seagulls on the coast. My friend is physically safe as well, thank goodness.

But the point is, until we are all able to move through public spaces within our private selves, no one is really completely safe.

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.