Why Obama wasn’t sexist after all

California attorney general Kamala Harris. (AFP)

California attorney general Kamala Harris. (AFP)

Imagine this: you're dressed in a striking white suit with pearls, paired with your best heels at a fund-raising function, where you're due to address a large crowd from the stage.

The man introducing you happens to be the president of your country – and a personal friend. He lists your achievements, lauds the character traits that have brought you this far and lastly, as an aside, jokes that you happen to the best-looking person doing what you're doing, to laughter and applause.

Here's the million dollar question: would you take offence in that situation?

The woman in question was California's attorney general Kamala Harris; the man, US President Barack Obama; and the event a fundraiser for the Democratic Party, which both are affiliated to. And the reason I know about this otherwise innocuous incident is because it has caused a minor storm of controversy in the US, with a number of people taking offence on Harris's behalf and reams of comment opining whether the statement was sexist or not.

Harris has been quiet on the matter, although Obama apparently called her to apologise after the brouhaha caused by the comments on Friday.
It must have been a slow news weekend in the US.

Don't get me wrong. If you've read my column for any length of time you would have come across my occasional rants on the hurdles facing women, particularly in the work place.

But I'm stumped here. The context, the tone and the history all make it a bit of a stretch to call Obama's comments sexist.  Perhaps it was inappropriate at worst, but it's hard for us to tell post the fact, given that there is no video of the event, and we only have a transcript and photographs to rely upon.

"She's brilliant and she's dedicated, she's tough … She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general ... It's true! C'mon," said Obama.

'Equal opportunity' flatterer
A number of people have pointed out that Obama is an "equal opportunity" flatterer, who is on record at least three times in the past year referring to different men as "the good looking guy" over there/at the end of the room/underneath it all. He would have just as likely made the same comment about a man in the same position, although of course it does carry a different context given the baggage women have around this issue. But it's still not enough to convince me that he was wrong.

But it's pretty rare for me to miss the mainstream feminist point of view. So I decided to check with a few women. Most found the comment harmless and the resulting uproar hilarious. One or two however pointed out the complexities of gender relations, where a woman must constantly fight to be taken seriously and not be reduced to a product of her appearance. I was reminded of the US elections in 2008, where an undue emphasis was placed on Republican running mate Sarah Palin's physical appearance. In contrast, and almost in response, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton resorted to a utilitarian uniform of sorts.

While Palin wore striking outfits that generated more media coverage than her policies, Clinton created a blank space where her appearance was concerned to force a fickle and superficial public and media to focus on the issues at hand, and her strength as a candidate in a world where your fashion sense didn't help you address health provision or foreign policy.

Within that context I can understand why careful feminists take issue with Obama's off-the-cuff remarks.

Garance Franke-Ruta comments best summarised this view for me. "President Obama's remark mistook the setting. Just as it's perfectly appropriate to tell a colleague she looks gorgeous when she's dressed to the nines for some black tie work event, it would be inappropriate to refer to her as 'gorgeous over there' during a work meeting. Doing so takes her out of the system of power and puts her into the system of beauty in a setting in which power is the value that's brought her to the table. And that, dear readers, is a gaffe."

I was almost convinced. Almost.

The system
But then I thought back to why the uproar bothered me instinctively when I first heard about it. It was precisely because of this idea of a compartmentalised human being. As a person, I am made up of so many facets. When I go to work I don't suddenly stop being a daughter, a fan of alternative rock, a reader of fantasy novels, a fashion junkie or feminine. Those traits, and more, carry into all areas of my life to a lesser or greater degree.

When Franke-Ruta criticises Obama for allowing beauty a role in a "system" where only power can hold sway, she gives that system too much credit. Why should we be held hostage to these strict and unnatural divisions? As long as our other facets aren't being used to undermine us, why prevent others from referencing them? By taking such umbrage, we reinforce a dehumanised culture within the work place that limits the full range of human expression.

I'm with Ariana Huffington on this one. In response to the incident, she said she wished people made more of a fuss about genuine gender inequality in the workplace, for example disproportionate pay and dwindling women in the top structures of management. We should be thinking of ways to makes it easier for women to stay in upper management, when there clearly seems to be a number of factors that cause a high attrition rate at the top. Perhaps one of those factors is this harsh idea of what it means to be a professional, which precludes and belittles so much of what makes us brilliant, including our softness, our beauty and sense of fun. These too can contribute to the success of those too-masculine structures called corporations – and our advancement within them.

Fact: if I had to write a journalism profile on Kamala Harris I would describe her background, her rise to the top, her style at work, and I would definitely devote a paragraph to her manner and appearance as a person. Because we don't get to know people in a work-shaped vacuum. We get to know them as people, in all the multi-layered and complex facets they include. Just because certain systems of prejudice have twisted those facets against us does not mean we have to disregard it in favour of a tasteless, joyless political correctness. We have to claim it back and make it ours again.

Verashni is the deputy editor of the M&G Online. Read her weekly column and follow her on Twitter.

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay

Verashni Pillay is the former editor-in-chief of the Mail & Guardian, and inaugural editor-in chief of Huffington Post South Africa. She has worked at various periods as senior reporter covering politics and general news, specialises in mediamanagement and relishes the task of putting together the right team to create compelling and principled journalism across multiple platforms.  Read more from Verashni Pillay

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