RSS
Was Obama's 'best-looking attorney general' comment a sexist gaffe?
President Obama praised California Attorney General Kamala Harris for a lot of things. But one compliment raised hackles on the Left
 
Obama has some explaining to do.
Obama has some explaining to do. Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Thursday morning, few people outside of California could even name the Golden State's attorney general. By the end of the day, everyone who reads Twitter and political blogs not only knew who Kamala Harris is, but also had an opinion about her looks. The question isn't whether California's Indian-Jamaican-American attorney general is attractive, but whether President Obama should have noted her beauty during a San Francisco Bay Area fundraiser.

Here's what Obama said, according to a White House transcript:

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. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country — Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It's true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years. [via The Los Angeles Times]

The part about Harris being "the best-looking attorney general" didn't go over well on Twitter, or on many liberal blogs. Commenting on Harris' looks was "sexist (and stupid)," says Katie McDonough at Salon. And "if you're not sure why," McDonough explains using a bunch of outraged tweets. Jonathan Chait at New York picks up the thread, explaining why Obama needs "gender-sensitivity training":

For those who don't see the problem here, the degree to which women are judged by their appearance remains an important hurdle to gender equality in the workforce. Women have a hard time being judged purely on their merits. Discussing their appearance in the context of evaluating their job performance makes it worse. It's not a compliment. And for a president who has become a cultural model for many of his supporters in so many other ways, the example he's setting here is disgraceful. [New York]

BuzzFeed's Rosie Gray took a very BuzzFeed path of criticism, with a photo-heavy list of "the 13 hottest attorney generals" — all white males. Not everyone on the Left was so incensed by the comment, however. First of all, Obama "spoke the God's honest truth," says Jonathan Capehart at The Washington Post. Harris truly is gorgeous.

What's also true is that Obama and Harris are longtime friends. She was a featured speaker at the Democratic Convention in Charlotte. And Harris was a guest at the state dinner for British Prime Minister David Cameron.... Judging by some of the comments I've seen on Twitter you'd swear the president was guilty of luridly cat-calling a woman he doesn't know. If I thought for one moment that's what was going on, you better believe I'd hammer him for it. But that's not the case here. Far from it. So lighten up, people. [Washington Post]

Conservatives, meanwhile, mostly watched in amusement. "At the very least, this'll make for a nifty blue-on-blue food fight between hardcore O-bots and progressives who take their feminism a bit more seriously," says Hot Air's Allahpundit. If truth is "an absolute defense to gratuitous comments aimed at a woman colleague's appearance," Obama is probably "off the hook." But the politically correct crowd might have a point:

There's research out there that claims even mildly sexist talk aimed at a female politician can do disproportionate damage to her public image. Obama's comment is so mild and so tempered by praise for her intelligence that it might not even count — the audience laughed, didn't they? — but now that the most famous man in the world has made an issue of how she looks, so will everyone else who stumbles across this story. She'll be objectified by millions of people in the next day or two as they find out what he said and then Google her to render their own hot-or-not verdict. Who knows if that'll hurt her politically or no? [Hot Air]

"California, quite simply, has freakishly good-looking elected officials," and Harris and Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom (D) top the list, says Robin Abcarian at The Los Angeles Times. But that doesn't mean Obama gets a pass for "stating the obvious," especially after once calling a reporter "sweetie" — a gaffe for which "Obama rightfully apologized" — and his 2008 comment about Hillary Clinton being "likable enough." Was Obama's latest comment sexist?

More wolfish than sexist, I'd say.... But still. Let's not pretend that physical beauty is not a bonus in politics, particularly for women, who then walk a fine line between wanting to be found attractive and not wanting to be judged on looks. The Obamas have benefited immensely from their cool beauty. Likewise, the Romneys benefited from their classic good looks. The rewards of beauty, we all know, can be plentiful, especially when combined with superior brains and ambition. [Los Angeles Times]

 
Peter Weber is a senior editor at TheWeek.com, and has handled the editorial night shift since 2008. A graduate of Northwestern University, Peter has worked at Facts on File and The New York Times Magazine. He speaks Spanish and Italian, and plays in an Austin rock band.

THE WEEK'S AUDIOPHILE PODCASTS: LISTEN SMARTER

Subscribe to the Week