Friday, April 05, 2013

The Hottest President of the United States of America

This was created after Obama's comments about the looks of Kamala Harris. It's one of those "hottest this or that" lists but, for once, consists of men.

The comments Obama made, to create that response, were these:

At the fundraiser, Obama called out Harris along with several other Democratic leaders in California.
“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,” the president said. “She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general in the country.”
When the crowd started laughing, the president added, “It’s true! C’mon.”

He has now apologized for referring to her looks.

The reactions to all this have been predictable, taking the form of people either arguing that a man can't even compliment a woman anymore without all those feminazis rushing in or arguing that for the boss to talk about his subordinate's looks in public is inappropriate for all kinds of reasons, and mostly for the reason that traditionally women have been ranked first on their looks.  Thus, talking about those looks in some ways puts a woman back in her "proper place" in the grand scheme of things.

It is that gendered  history of certain types of compliments that might matter here.  In fact, I can't quite imagine anyone introducing Obama at an event by adding to a list of his achievements the fact that he probably IS the hottest president we have had for some time.  And if anyone actually did that it would look and sound very weird.

At the same time, I don't think Obama tried to do anything but compliment Harris.  And if these kinds of compliments were equally commonly received by both men and women I wouldn't see it a problem.  Indeed, it's not a problem in the grand scheme of things (fistulas, poverty, legal subordination of women in many countries and so on).  But analyzing it can be useful as one of those "my life experience is different" moments of shared understanding.

But this I have a little bit of trouble with:
During a discussion on the topic Friday on TODAY, celebrity guest Liza Minnelli said she didn’t see anything wrong with what Obama said.
“He can’t say she’s pretty?” she said. “When this lovely woman gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror and puts on her makeup and does her hair, don’t you think she wants to be attractive and wants to be thought of as attractive? She’s not doing that for no reason.”
If I have a shower in the morning do I want my boss to praise me on how clean I smell?  To want to be viewed as presentable or attractive or whatever is not the same thing as to want that vocally discussed in a professional context.  And compliments which are wonderful in certain private contexts are not so wonderful when they are publicly expressed.

Then there is the fact that many men would love to get compliments on their hotness because traditionally they do not get them.  It sounds like a really fun thing, and it may well be, the first one hundred times or so.

That's where the gendered history enters the picture.  The kinds of comments the manager of an exclusive men's financial club in Finland gave, about whether the club would ever admit women.  He pointed out that women would be lovely eye-candy.  I mention that example, because it sorta demonstrates why many women are uncomfortable with public comments about their looks, however complimentary they may be.
Added later:  Garance makes the case much better.