Why President Obama’s Sexist Remark about Kamala Harris Matters

09 Apr 2013

We live in a society attracted, even addicted, to pretty packaging.  That is unlikely to change.  Notwithstanding those with a seeming compulsion to praise or deride others’ appearance, our leaders and elected officials need to lead by example, not use their bully pulpits to further stereotyped perceptions.  At a California fundraiser last week, President Obama offered up the following description of California Attorney General Kamala Harris:

“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.”

President Obama with CA Atty Gen’l Kamala Harris (Associated Press)

Sounds like he’s saying you’d better be “careful” to show you are not a sexist by first noting the lady’s accomplishments, then undo everything you just said by noting how pretty she is.  Got it.  As the Los Angeles Times reported, his supporters were divided in their reactions.  Some took offense while others said we should “lighten up” about something that matters little in the national discussion.  They also insisted Ms. Harris was not offended.  But are those characterizations accurate?

It is debatable whether anyone would publicly demonstrate offense at the President of the United States regardless of how he or she felt in the moment.  Though the President later apologized for his “distracting” remarks, his initial statement telegraphs that no matter what a woman achieves, her looks must also be part of her portfolio and will either work for her or against her.  This is the wrong message to send to women and to men, whether Ms. Harris took umbrage or not.

Women and girls are hyper-sexualized daily by advertisers, comedians, big media and the entertainment industry.  Here is a sample exchange from Sunday night’s American Country Music Awards:

Blake Shelton:  People are always making such a big deal about Tim McGraw’s new buff look, but he has always had one of the best bodies in country music…

Luke Bryan: Yeah, and her name is Faith Hill.

That Ms. Hill is beautiful is not at issue.  But she happens to be, first and foremost, an accomplished artist with five Grammys to her credit (two more than her husband, Tim McGraw, by the way).  All that was mentioned in the intro was her body.  She didn’t look real happy about it.

We are telling women that to be beautiful is desirable and in the same breath, make clear we do not take them as seriously when they are.  Ask Sarah Palin about being condemned as “Caribou Barbie” or David Letterman’s references to her “slutty flight attendant look.”  Hillary Clinton has had 20 years of experience with her wardrobe, hair and ass size overtaking her issue.

Women in politics consistently experience media coverage where appearance trumps accomplishment via the characterizations of their opponents and major news outlets.  In some cases, their mode of dress is mentioned in advance of or as a substitute for their platform even today.  Recently, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid referred to New York’s Kirsten Gillibrand as “the Senate’s hottest member” at a prominent political function.  As an afterthought, he remembered to point out that she’s also a whiz at Securities Law.

As reported in Politico, a newly released study reveals troubling data:

“In the survey on media coverage of women candidates’ appearance, conducted by Celinda Lake of Lake Research Partners and Robert Carpenter of Chesapeake Beach Consulting, the research used actual quotes about women candidates from media coverage of the 2012 elections and demonstrates that when the media focuses on a woman candidate’s appearance, she pays a price in the polls,” the WMC press release states. “This finding held true whether the coverage of a woman candidate’s appearance was framed positively, negatively or in neutral terms.”

“Unlike women, male candidates do not suffer from coverage of their appearance… While this appearance coverage is very damaging to women candidates, the male opponent paid no price for this type of coverage,” a summary of the report states.”

Men are allowed to be sexy and are still taken seriously.  And no one seems to spend paragraphs describing what the guy was wearing.

These findings echo earlier surveys Ms. Lake and other respected pollster, Kellyanne Conway, conducted during the 2010 midterms showing that even mild sexist attacks had a devastating effect on a woman’s ability to win a political contest.  The new study indicates nothing has changed:

“When respondents hear the negative description of the female candidate’s appearance, she gets only 42 percent of the voters. When they hear the “flattering” description, she gets 43 percent (and there are fewer undecided votes overall, so her opponent gets an even bigger lead). With no physical description, “Jane Smith” gets 50 percent of the votes.

The same is true for all of her personal attributes; no matter the description, it affects her negatively.”

As the study’s graphic shows, when polled on issues that matter to voters: effectiveness, experience, being qualified, confident, sharing your values, strength, being “in touch” and having a vision for the future, a female candidate lost anywhere from 6 to 11 points per issue, simply because her appearance was mentioned.

Per US News & World Report, Ms. Lake suggested “male candidates may have a big incentive to get their female opponent’s looks talked about by the media”:

“Just last week, a South Carolina GOP official noted that Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the Democrat facing former South Carolina Gov. Republican Mark Sanford in a special election for a South Carolina congressional seat, was “not a bad-looking lady,” resulting in some 100 news stories on the comment.”

This trivial coverage distracts from the woman’s overall qualifications and message, emphasizing that women are objects, not “actors.”  In all cases, pushback against these kinds of tactics is mandatory in order for a woman to have a shot at regaining her standing in the race.  The “ignore it and it will go away” method proves to be an abysmal failure every time.  Worse still, the she’s “hot” or a “battle-axe” comments are mild in comparison to the treatment some women currently receive.

Council member and Republican Jean Strothert is running to be Mayor of Omaha.  Fellow Councilmember Chris Jerram was photographed modeling a t-shirt which depicted Strothert as a stripper.  In detailing some of the other attacks against her, Debbie Walsh of the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers states that the sexist attacks against Strothert “were the most disgusting she had ever seen.”  It is not surprising that only 5 women have served on the City Council since 1980.

Omaha.com reported political consultant Jeremy Jensen referring to State Senator Danielle Conrad as “a flat out disrespectful c$&#.”  He then complained about being busted on his behavior since it was on his Facebook page, where it was only shared with his 423 closest friends.  In other cases, the same type of degrading verbiage has gone out on many twitter feeds and social media pages reaching millions with no restriction.

What is the male equivalent of the “C” word, by the way?  And regardless of where it was printed, is that the way we wish to talk about women?

Last fall, the Chicago Sun Times asked Illinois’ attorney general Lisa Madigan whether she was capable of being “a mother and a Governor,” since being Governor is “a more demanding job.”  What man is ever asked such a question?  This also presumes she is a child, an idiot or amoral fool, incapable of making such a determination without the admonishments of sexist (male and female) reporters.  Ms. Madigan assured them that she and her husband had already worked that part out.

This is an issue that affects both men and women, regardless of party.  We deserve the best representation, not be cursed with distractions or insults.  I also presume we would rather not have our nation’s children inducted into that sort of dialogue.

Whatever the President’s mixed record when it comes to welcoming women into his inner circle or accepting their counsel, he was right when he said “words matter” – but only when they are not empty and have matching actions to back them up.  We cannot afford to have leaders and elected officials on either side who pretend to support empowerment and in the next breath, objectify.

Heaven forfend we elect the best leadership and leave packaging out of the equation.

*************************

Anita Finlay is the author of Dirty Words on Clean Skin, a shocking exposé of media bias, now available in print and Kindle editions on Amazon.
Like Anita Finlay, Author on Facebook.
Follow @AnitaFinlay on Twitter.

 

 

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