On Friday, I was headed down 19th Street, on the way to my favorite bar for happy hour. It was 5:45 p.m. The sun was shining, the sidewalk was crowded with commuters, and I had my sweater slung over my shoulder as I scurried down the street. With my office building still visible in the background, I ran into a group of teenage boys. They spotted me from down the block and began catcalling and making comments about my physique. As I passed the group, one boy reached out to me. He opened his arms wide, as if he were about to give me a bear hug. I jumped away at just the right second and was able to scurry away. They didn’t follow and aside from my own raised blood pressure, it was a harmless encounter.
Except that it reminded me so much of Barack Obama.
Let’s get this out of the way: I voted for Obama. I support him. If I had a car, I’d have his bumper sticker.
But, boy, did he disappoint me last week.
At a Democratic National Committee luncheon on Thursday, Obama called California attorney general Kamala Harris “the best-looking attorney general in the country.”
“She’s brilliant and she’s dedicated, she’s tough … She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general,” Obama said. Later that night, after catching heat for the comment, he called Harris and apologized. (Sort of: According to White House press secretary Jay Carney, “He apologized for the buzz this has created.” This is not actually a real apology, but that’s another post for another day.)
This isn’t the same as a group of immature boys leering on 19th Street. But it’s all part of the same problem.
Women put up with all kinds of unwanted attention—on the street, in the workplace and everywhere in between. When even the President is objectifying the female form, you know things have reached critical mass. It’s awfully exasperating to turn to America’s national role model and find out that he, too, has no clue how to talk to or about women. This is the guy who helped us get free birth control! If he doesn’t get it, how can we expect random putzes on the street to understand why it’s not OK to bring unwanted attention to a woman’s body?
You may be thinking: Geez, it was just a compliment! Politico’s Dylan Byers wondered on Twitter: “How did it become so difficult to call a woman good looking in public?” Two of my female colleagues—with whom I often agree on many issues—surprised me by admitting that if Obama had called them pretty, they’d feel flattered and happy.
The problem with Obama’s comment about Harris? She was being noted for her professional work. While it might be fine for Obama to privately tell her he liked her haircut or the new shoes she was wearing, announcing it publicly in conjunction with noting her professional success is demeaning. It was an opportunity to underscore Harris’ brilliance and toughness, to use Obama’s own words. It was neither the time nor the place for the President to throw in the fact that he also happens to like the way her face looks. There are enough obstacles to success—for anyone—in the workplace. Tossing sexual objectification into the mix is salt in the wound.
A Gawker commenter pointed out that Obama often introduces male colleagues with the phrase “good-looking guy.” For example, last February, he introduced HUD secretary Shaun Donovan as “the good-looking guy in the front here.”
I could argue that this is demeaning, too—toward the men whom Obama deems “good-looking” enough to mention—but it would only be half-hearted. The fact of the matter is that women and men aren’t equal. And until they are, it’s probably best for everyone—including the President—to be awfully careful of comments about appearance. It’s exhausting enough being disappointed with the rest of humanity. I’d rather not feel that way about the President, too.