Why Women's looks still count

President Barack Obama walks with California Attorney General Kamala Harris after arriving at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco.  The pair are old friends.

President Barack Obama walks with California Attorney General Kamala Harris after arriving at San Francisco International Airport in San Francisco. The pair are old friends. Photo: Eric Risberg / AP Photo

Last week, US President Barack Obama was forced to apologise for referring to fellow Democrat Kamala Harris as, "by far, the best-looking attorney-general". Although plenty found the comment patronisingly sexist, others defended it as harmless.

It's no secret that much of Obama's success has to do with his popularity with women. His 55 to 44 per cent advantage over Mitt Romney with women voters helped propel him to a second term last November, and he is undoubtedly more progressive on women's issues then either of his last two Republican opponents.

There is a troubling tendency, however, for the President to exhibit signs of sexism that is difficult to call him out on without being accused of seeing a problem where there isn't one.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris was called the <i>best-looking</i> attorney general in the country by President Obama.

California Attorney General Kamala Harris was called the best-looking attorney general in the country by President Obama.

Sexism takes many forms. There is the outright misogyny of the continuing sexual assault epidemic in Egypt; there is Tony Abbott's style of sexism that still has women at home doing all the ironing; and then there is Obama's subtle – almost unconscious – sexism that manifests even as he outwardly praises women.

But its subtlety does not make it any less real.

So, what's wrong with calling a woman "good looking"? Well, ostensibly, nothing. It shouldn't be an issue, and it wouldn't be if not for the fact that for much of human history women, considered to lack the intellectual and reasoning skills of men, were lauded for their looks precisely because they were thought to have nothing else to offer.

In such a context, praising women's looks is not necessarily a compliment but a reminder that they are not quite on the same level as men, whose worth is measured primarily by what they do, rather than the way they look. The words of Mary Wollstonecraft, written way back in 1793, ring no less true today:

"Taught from infancy that beauty is woman's sceptre the mind shapes itself to the body and roaming around its gilt cage, only seeks to adorn its prison."

To see this in action look no further than the concept of female "empowerment", which nowadays is directly related to the amount of skin a woman shows and how "sexy" she looks doing it. It began with the Spice Girls, whose "girl power" mantra was a shameful subversion of the early 90s riot grrrl movement that spawned a feminist revival, only to see its ideals trampled beneath the platform heels of a manufactured pop act that equated "power" with "sex object" status.

The mantle has since passed to Lady Gaga and now – incredibly – Beyonce, who we are supposed to believe is the modern embodiment of feminism. I've said it before and I'll say it again; if being naked were a sign of empowerment, then Obama would show up to the Oval Office in a diamante-encrusted bra and matching G-string.

When there is a gulf between what men and women are required to do to be "empowered", then you can bet your life that the expectations on women are those that men would never dream of applying to themselves.

Obama's remark was a grossly inappropriate act that exposes the truth in our supposedly egalitarian 21st century society: women cannot escape being judged on their looks. And once we make it socially acceptable to comment on women's attractiveness, it is only a short step away to remarking on their lack of it, as the obsession with Hillary Clinton's "cankles" shows.

Let's be honest here, the reason women are praised for their sex appeal above all else is to gently remind them that their purpose is to provide visual stimulation for men who, when they are not busy doing Important Things, like to have something nice to look at.

Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying that women should never want to feel attractive. Like many other straight women, I get a thrill when a man I happen be drawn to looks at me in That Way. My stomach does its little black flips when he calls me striking, or stunning or sexy. But I would hope that that's not all he sees. There is a difference between physical appearance being viewed as only one aspect of your persona and your looks signifying your entire worth as a person.

Nor am I saying Obama was guilty of reducing Harris only to her looks. But in a world that still judges women on their "hotness", where beauty pageants are still A Thing, and where girls are taught to imitate plastic dolls, then there is a problem.

This is not the first time Obama has been called out for this kind of covert sexism. Following his last State of the Union address in which he positioned women's rights as the struggle to protect "our wives, mothers and daughters", Melissa McEwan, founder of feminist blog Shakesville, wrote a petition asking him to stop using what she called "reductive" language that values women only by their relationships to other people. Furthermore, she writes, "referring to 'our' wives et al, the President appears to be talking to The Men of America about Their Women, rather than talking to men AND women."

In other words, women don't just deserve rights because they are someone's mother or daughter or sister. They deserve them because they are people in their own right.

Again, to understand the implications of Obama's rhetoric, we need to draw on the long history of women being identified by their relationships to men. Women were literally property, passed on from their fathers to their husbands. Men's identity was a constant, whereas women's was interchangeable depending on which man she belonged to at the time.

It's a tough call singling out this sort of sexism. Feminists such as Ayaan Hirsi Ali believe it is ridiculous, considering what some women in the world are subjected to on a daily basis. And while it may seem petty to complain about a woman being called "good looking", we must keep in mind that all sexism and misogyny has the same root: the mistaken perception that there are fundamental differences between men and women (obvious physical attributes aside), and these differences are enough to render women inferior.

The prioritisation of women's physical appearance, even of those who scale to the heights of Kamala Harris, is a persistent reminder that Wollstonecraft's gilt cage has not yet been opened. Yes, vast inroads have been made but, in a world where 78 per cent of front page newspaper articles are written by men, then by and large, women are still the attractive "other", worthy of being seen but still struggling to be heard.

14 comments

  • A grossly inappropriate act?

    So how would you describe Obama pinching her behind while he said it? Have you left yourself anywhere to go, linguistically speaking? Seems the more (real) progress society makes the more minute is the thing that sparks the outrage. A decade from now we'll probably be castigating someone for smiling while they talk about a women.

    Commenter
    Peter
    Location
    Oz
    Date and time
    April 11, 2013, 9:34AM
    • Uh, perfectly said, couldn't agree more.

      Commenter
      Melissa
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 10:02AM
  • Amazing article and I couldn't agree more. Journalism is the biggest offender when it comes to gender inequality and as you pointed out with 78% of front page news written by men it's getting harder to get our voices heard and recognised.

    Thanks for the great article!

    Commenter
    Jules
    Date and time
    April 11, 2013, 9:44AM
    • Obama's not sexist in the least. He's just a warm blooded guy who knows a good looker when he sees one. Just take a chill pill and stop being offended by every gesture a man makes. I defy anyone to suggest that Obama feels that women are inferior because they are different. And for the record, Obama is spot on, Kamala's a cracker.

      Commenter
      Seamus O'Connor
      Location
      Potts Point
      Date and time
      April 11, 2013, 9:46AM
      • Yes referring to how someone looks is shallow however the hysteria is unwarranted.

        Agree that compared with what most women in the world are subjected to this is a waste of space and emotion.

        There will never be a perfect world where women are free from everything bad. Not even in a world peopled only by feminists would there be a perfect paradise for the perfect being that is woman. In fact that would be one scary place to live and I am a feminist!!

        Leave Obama alone, the way he lives his life is sufficient testament to his respect for women.

        Commenter
        Melissa
        Date and time
        April 11, 2013, 9:58AM
        • Agree Melissa, and I am a woman and a feminist.

          A person should be judged on their deeds, not their words.

          This article could have been used to highlight/educate about the plight of women who have bigger issues than being judged on their appearance or handling compliments.
          It seems women wearing burqas (and not being judged on appearances) in their own countries are not protected from their fellow men's brutalities, and treated worse than cattle. Being subject to stonings or honour killings is obviously not as much of a worthwhile discussion as being complimented/noticed for our appearance. Ruby, stop focusing on superficialities in order to detract attention from what REALLY matters.

          I'm entirely tired of political/cultural correctness.

          Commenter
          koob
          Date and time
          April 11, 2013, 10:54AM
      • Sometimes a compliment really is just a compliment. While it's true that they've been used to veil prejudice by some people before, instinctively transforming compliments into gender-based veiled insults as a matter of course isn't the right way to approach things.

        When it comes to taking offence, people (in general, not just on sexism) focus too much on words and how they -might- be interpreted negatively instead of focusing on the person using those words and what their intended meaning is. Sexism is an intention, not a combination of words. There are enough battles worth fighting as it is without creating more where there don't need to be any.

        Commenter
        Zombie Jesus
        Date and time
        April 11, 2013, 10:03AM
        • A few things you failed to mention.
          1) They are long term friends.
          2) He praised he brilliance, dedication and toughness before mentioning her attractiveness.
          3) Obama has praised men for their looks as well.

          Commenter
          Adman
          Date and time
          April 11, 2013, 10:10AM
          • I'm sure it was a light hearted remark. I would just take it for what it was - a light hearted compliment. It's not indicative of how sexist Obama is because I don't really think he is. He is surrounded by Michelle who is a strong and intelligent women and his two lovely daughters. I don't think that this comment was meant in a demeaning way. Are there other politicians that are guilty of being sexist douchebags? Absolutely, but not Obama.

            Also, I'm sure there wasn't this much of a stink when everyone was saying what a babe Obama was when he was elected. Complete hottie.

            Commenter
            Bear
            Date and time
            April 11, 2013, 10:20AM
            • To be fair, the compliment on her looks was at the end of a list of her other character defining career achievements.

              I'm also not sure that commenting on a woman's looks is a politically motivated action designed to "remind women of their place" (to paraphrase you). It may be with some particularly nasty misogynistic types, but for most normal men such a comment would mostly be a tongue in cheek flirt with someone they've had a pretty good professional relationship. Heck women do it to men increasingly (though I'll grant you the power dynamic and history is decidedly different).

              What I would say on looks in general though is that as a rule men in positions of influence have a tendency to conform to specific archetypes as well when it comes to looks. Perhaps it's a more subtle for men, but looks are definitely relevant (http://www.smh.com.au/executive-style/management/good-looks-bring-a-handsome-return--32000-a-year-20130106-2cb65.html), so perhaps it's more steeped in a history of subjugation with women, but attractiveness is an issue irrespective of gender or race when it comes to getting ahead, even if you don't have the POTUS commenting on it with guys.

              Commenter
              Dan
              Location
              Sydney
              Date and time
              April 11, 2013, 10:33AM

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