When is sexism, sexism?

Barack Obama sparked criticism  by calling Kamala Harris the ‘best looking attorney general in the country.’ This comments have been labelled as a sexist and objectifying. Jemima Walker asks if these claims true or if it this a case of political correctness gone mad?

Looking at Obama’s comment in context,  I think that we can say with a relative degree of confidence that it was not founded in any real sexist attitude: Obama is notoriously passionate about gender equality, particularly in the work place. A prominent example of his drive towards absolute gender equality is his signature of the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, a bill which other major US politicians, mentioning no (Mitt Romney) names, openly state they would not have signed had they been in Obama’s position. In light of this, perhaps it’s easy to mindlessly leap to the same conclusion as democrat and former Governor of New Mexico ,Bill Richardson, when he says “maybe i’m a Neanderthal, but I thought the comment was harmless… political correctness has reached a point where it’s out of control.”

Well, Bill Richardson,you seem to have hit that nail right on it’s head. I think you probably are, as you so fittingly put it, ‘a Neanderthal.’  Here, whether Obama intended his comment about Ms. Harris to be a sexist jibe or not becomes void. The truth of it is, in commenting on the US attorney general’s appearance and relative attractiveness specifically as a female, the comment automatically becomes sexist, working on a far broader scale than it was intended in highlighting the  ongoing struggle women still face in the work place. Obama calls Ms. Harris “brilliant, dedicated and tough”; all highly valued qualities in a US attorney general. However, by going on to say that she also happens to be the ‘best looking attorney general’ in the country, Obama essentially strips Harris’ brilliance, dedication and toughness of its’ value.

In the aftermath or this comment, Obama stated that in no way did he mean to “diminish the attorney general’s professional accomplishments”, but in listing her good looks in a way that causes them to seem of equal importance to her real “professional accomplishments” this is exactly what he is doing. The same kind of inane view expressed by Bill Richardson is shared by Gretchen Carlson of Fox news, who wishes that we “wouldn’t be so constantly PC on the issue because it’s true, she’s attractive, so what?’ The thing is, Gretchen, women have fought long and hard to be judged on the same criteria as men. To be judged on their intelligence and drive, not by their appearance or merely as an attractive ornament in an often male dominated and orientated workplace. In being “brillant, dedicated and tough”, Kamala Harris is being judged against a backdrop of power and intelligence. However, in being ‘the best looking attorney general in the country’ she is being judged against a backdrop of appearance and beauty. A setting which you simply would not find any male of the same profession being judged within.

I don’t know Barack Obama on a personal level, but I reckon that he is almost definitely not a bigoted sexist on a mission to objectify women, and by no means am I trying to construct him as one. Nor  am I suggesting that every time a male pays a female a comment there ought to be uproar. If the president wants to tell the attorney general en route to an event that her hair looks great, that’s OK. The issue here is that Obama made this comment in a professional environment, and it is not OK to comment on Ms Harris’ appearance with regards to her success as attorney general, because in this professional environment appearance based on gender should not feature as a merit.

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  • Well apparently it’s most certainly not sexist so long as it is derived from a religious dogma.