Last week, President Obama caused controversy after talking about attorney Kamala Harris, calling her ‘by far the best-looking attorney general in the country’. While his quote* was preceded by a whole host of other, amazing compliments, the fact that Obama felt the need to end the string of kudos with a comment on Harris’ appearance was downright shameful. As this article in Slate shows, the quote implies that “Harris is one of the few women who can overcome the double bind, scoring well on both masculine and feminine metrics of success. She can do a man’s job, but she also complies with our idea of what a woman should be: pretty. The implicit message is that if Harris weren’t also feminine, we wouldn’t accept her masculine traits so easily, and she might not be so likeable or successful.”
I think that the Slate writer, Naomi Schoenbaum, has a really great point about double standards in the workplace and professional women’s woes regarding gender stereotyping and expectations. While I don’t think that Obama is single-handedly forcing us to march to the patriarchal-tune, a comment like this from our nation’s leader doesn’t help. This is yet one more example of how we are consistently socialized into gender/sex categories and how our social identity is shaped and influenced by what we hear and see around us. The fact that we are consistently reminded that remarkable women are, in fact, good women (see my April 3rd post, Welcome Back! and the discussion of Yvonne Brill’s obituary) forces us to see femininity as a defining factor of any woman. The double standard here is that we do not see masculinity as the defining factor of males (ie we are not consistently reminded that successful men are good ‘men’. This is called androcentrism where the masculine ‘view’ is the social point of view and masculine traits are viewed as the ‘norm’ of society and are, therefore, things to strive for).
A perfect example of socialization can be seen in a recent news topic in which a middle school has banned teenage girls from wearing skinny jeans or yoga pants, arguing that the tight clothes distract the young, male students. Young girls and parents (mothers) were interviewed for the news story, all complaining about the restrictions put on the girls but not the boys. As one young girl said, “We didn’t feel like it was fair how we had all this…we have all these restrictions on our clothing while boys didn’t have to sit through it at all.”
Kenilworth Junior High School in Petaluma, CA was under fire after the ban and responded by arguing that “The guiding principle in all dress codes is that the manner in which students dress does not become a distraction in the learning environment…” (Kathy Olmsted, Assistant Principal, Kenilworth Junior High School in voice recorded message). A parent responded by saying “Boys need to be taught to respect women, not matter what they’re wearing. And that’s a big deal.” Another said that the announcement “sent completely the wrong message to our girls. It is not our girls’ fault that these boys have ‘raging hormones’ that they can’t control.” This parent seems to imply that the school administrators indicated the young boys’ were also being pigeon-holed into gender stereotypes where, as burgeoning men, they have sexual desires that they cannot control and, therefore, the task falls to young women to control it for them (also a huge burden on young men…I’m not man-hating here…I see both sides).
Suffice to say, I super hate this. We are teaching children as young as middle school that women are not only consistently sexual objects of male desire but, more importantly, that those same women are in control of that sexual desire. Women are to be the ones that take responsibility for male sexuality, because heaven forbid we actually respect young men enough to teach them that they are masters of their own body and desire.SCHOOL ADMINISTRATORS blatantly told young women that their clothing was distracting boys and that THEY were responsible for it! Talk about double standard.
Similarly, in President Obama’s quote, while maybe spoken with good intentions, we are teaching women that they must work, think, and act like men in the professional sphere and yes also be sufficiently ‘female’ enough to be likable! The leader of our nation is unconsciously (I hope) teaching women that, even while being female, they can be just as good as men if they act enough like men to get by. It is THIS type of socialization that leads to sexism, ‘rape culture’, and ‘victim blaming’…and we wonder where it comes from! Women being subtly told that their appearance is the cause of sexual desire, that they have to be pretty to be successful, and that men don’t have to worry about these things makes for an uneven society, unacceptable expectations, and a downright shitty experience.
*President Obama’s exact quote: “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.”