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April 21, 2024

What Obama's controversial comment means and why it matters

By KIDIST KETEMA | April 11, 2013

This past week, President Obama received a lot of criticism for commenting on the attractiveness of California Attorney General Kamala Harris. “She’s brilliant and she’s dedicated, she’s tough,” Obama said at a Democratic National Committee fundraiser. “She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country,” he then added.

The immediate crowd gave mixed reviews, prompting the president to coyly defend himself by saying, “It’s true, come on.” The media then quickly sensationalized the story, labeling the remark “sexist” and comparing it to Mitt Romney’s infamous “binders full of women” statement from last year’s debates.

In spite of all of the media attention and public condemnation the comment received, I was surprised to learn that an overwhelming majority of my peers were not offended by it. In fact, many believed it was “harmless” and even “friendly.” Others were more annoyed with the amount of media coverage and backlash it received, and generally irritated with the growing public scrutiny of politicians’ personal lives.

Though I do believe Obama spoke with good intentions, I am weary of the assumptions that fell behind his so-called “compliment.” In this delicate era of female empowerment and movement toward equal opportunity, which heavily contends with a pervasive “rape culture,” it seems we’re constantly confronted with the following question: Is it ever okay to compliment a female’s appearance at work?

Sunday marked the season premiere of AMC’s Mad Men, a show chronicling the rise of advertisement at a time when women began entering the workforce. The show is known for its generous display of misogyny, in the form of casual workplace harassment, male infidelity and domestic violence.

Although we’ve come a long way since those horrifically exploitive times, we’re still light-years away from an ideally egalitarian society. Women make up less than 20 percent of leadership positions, whether in government, the private, or even the non-profit sector. Workplace sexual harassment, moreover, is still a widespread problem. According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, there were roughly 11,000 sexual harassment lawsuits, 83.7 percent of which were filed by women in the year 2011. Many more are left unreported for fear of job loss and tolerance to abuse. The military is a prime example of institutionalized sexual torment, under which most cases dissolve unnoticed.

The reasons for the historical and systematic sexual exploitation of women and their exclusion from the workplace are numerous and complex. Evolutionary biologists will tell you that the female physiological make-up is fragile, lending itself to a domestic lifestyle, more capable of bearing and raising offspring, and which must be protected from the “harsh” outside world. Anthropologists and sociologists might say that combinations of evolutionary and socially constructed factors are responsible for the normality of restricted female roles.

Indeed, the contribution of female sexuality and “attractiveness” to society is indisputable. Why else would the emphasis on feminine “beauty” appeal to a wide range of cultures and societies? Women are universally expected to enhance their appearance, sometimes at the expense of their comfort, to live up to a culturally constructed idea of beauty.

This is demonstrated in rituals across several different cultures and generations, whether it is “feet-binding” in China, breast implants in the U.S or even less extreme daily make-up routines which exist almost everywhere. Women are systematically removed from their natural appearance to fit a satisfying, more culturally apt mold. Some might say that this attention to looks, and resulting “feminine attractiveness,” is perhaps women’s greatest contribution to life. After all, female appearances and social statuses have historically attracted men and resulted in procreation.

For a better understanding of the dynamics behind “femininity,” let’s juxtapose it with the qualities women looked for in men: support and protection, which often translate to wealth, power, and education, depending on the society in which they lived.

This is particularly important in a society in which half of the workforce is comprised of women and in which women receive more than half of all college degrees, appearance should no longer be their most sought-after quality. But it still is. This is evidenced in less overt, taken-for-granted aspects of life. Compliments on appearance are a central example. Women are consistently complimented on their appearance more than anything else; as a result they derive most of their self-esteem from their perceived attractiveness and they do more to enhance and preserve their beauty.

And this is where the problem starts. In a culture that already values women more for their looks, workplace compliments on appearance are especially damaging to female empowerment. It doesn’t even matter if such compliments are prefaced with careful acknowledgement of other notable characteristics such as intelligence and hard work – “she’s brilliant and she’s dedicated,” Obama remarked. All this does is create an unjust pressure for women to increasingly embrace beauty, while doing all those other things we expect of them.

I guess the real question is what will shift first, our attitudes toward the appearance of women or women’s appearances themselves? In other words, if we’ve accepted that certain social structures in our lives have made it so that women do dress or act in a way that accentuates appearance, do women have to change this in order to be taken more seriously? Should women not wear skirts and uncomfortable heels to work? Should they stop applying make-up? I’m not sure, and I’m certainly not blaming anyone, but I think it’s something worth considering.

Kidist Ketema is a sophomore Public Health and Economics double major from Annandale, Va. 

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