Friday, April 5, 2013

On POTUS's Benign Sexism

I wasn't going to comment on President Obama's "best-looking attorney general" comment directed toward Kamala Harris, figuring that everyone else on the internet would do so (and heaven forbid there be redundancy on the internet!), but at the gym a debate about it came onto the little TV screen and something caught my eye: The defenses of the comment were along the lines of, It was a joke, or it was a compliment, or they've worked together for years, they're friends, for chrissakes, or But Obama is an advocate for women. The specifics varied, but the essence was: Obama is on women's side, particularly this woman's side, so why is anyone up in arms about this?

What that line of questioning ignores is what actually happens in the anatomy of a compliment. It takes for granted that if you're saying something nice, it can't be sexist, or at least not the bad kind of sexism. And while it's true that the speaker of a compliment may have genuinely positive intentions, as we see here, the space between speaker and receiver is far from linear. Because this is what most men—even the genuinely well-meaning ones, the ones who, say, make their first act of presidency a decidedly feminist one—can understand in a scientific context but not in a personal one: The act of observation changes that which is being observed. The minute I know I am being looked at, even in a complimentary way, I change. Perhaps my walk changes; maybe I sway my hips a little more. Perhaps my shoulders hunch, or my gaze becomes averted. Maybe I take it in stride and wonder why, weeks later, I suddenly become flustered and lose my train of thought when talking with the observer. Maybe I feel just the slightest twinge of apprehension every time I talk to the person I know has looked at me, has evaluated me; maybe I don't feel it at all, but rather just experience its effects in dragging my feet in returning a voicemail, or in looking forward to the glint I might notice in the observer's eye when he looks at me, or in noticing the next time he compliments my coworker and wondering whether I should feel relieved that I'm not the specimen of the day—or insulted that this time, it wasn't me.

In other words: I cease being as efficient at whatever the task at hand is. When it's a partner telling us we're the best-looking blogger/cook/shoe saleswoman/attorney general in the country, efficiency isn't the point. When it's a colleague—when it is the President of the United States—it is.

The evaluation itself is besides the point in the ways it might affect me, or any woman—I mean, sure, most of would rather hear that we look smashing than that we look dreadful, of course. But the effect of both comments might wind up being more closely related than the speaker ever intended. Compliments of this sort are called "benign sexism," a term I like in that it shows that even allies can engage in it, but in truth it is anything but benign, even when the effect winds up being satisfactory. It's just that instead of being the stab of hurt that something like, "Hey, fatty" might bring, it's a slower effect, one we might not even notice until it's too late.

42 comments:

  1. This is the first I've heard of this so I'm glad you shared! (apparently I live under a rock). I think the biggest issue I see with the comment is that to my knowledge (I haven't checked) there are other female attorney generals throughout the country. This does what is sadly very common and that is rates the women in this field. Which then puts a sort of competitive aspect to the whole thing. Why should her looks be brought up at all? And by saying she is best looking he is saying the rest are not. If that makes sense. By mentioning her looks in a flattering light (how he worded it) he is also mentioning all the others (past/present)looks in a non flattering light. That to me makes it even more rude and unprofessional. Anyways, I'm just off the top of my head here :) What do you think?

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    1. Hi Hannah--Ha, you don't live under a rock, I think my Twitter feed is just skewed toward people for whom this is big news! (And honestly I was just happy to see a story like this on CNN.) That's an excellent point about the fallout of the comment--it inadvertently pits accomplished women against one another. Like: Yay, you've all become state attorney generals, something that wasn't really open to women 40 years ago! Now, who's the hottest?!

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    3. Yes, that was what bothered me too: the fact that he wasn't merely complimenting her, but *ranking* her against other women (who must have felt insulted—I would have, anyway!). I also HATE it when people state such things as facts—as if there's no room for subjectivity, and under no circumstances, to no person, could the other attorney generals be as beautiful as Kamala Harris. Like, say, in the eyes of their significant others.

      That's what I think is really ugly: that even though we allow for personal feelings to create a "bias" in favor of someone's looks, we still don't give the recipient the same status as an "objectively" beautiful person. As if being seen as beautiful by someone who loves you doesn't really mean you're beautiful; it means that person's judgment of you is skewed. What an ugly assumption that is, which unwittingly underlies every benign comment about beauty.

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    4. Sunflower, that's so true--that most of us acknowledge the role that personal subjectivity plays in beauty, but we put that in some other, "special" category...that we don't allow to be as real or valid as that for "objectively" beautiful people. So a compliment then begs the question of which kind of beauty we're talking about, which--ugh, no thanks!

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  2. This article talks about this issue also, calling it "benevolent sexism."

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    1. Thanks for the link! I'm glad that this is getting some serious attention. I mean, I think most of us would agree that this form of sexism isn't as problematic as, say, domestic violence, reproductive rights, and other institutionalized forms of misogyny. But to play this down as harmless isn't helpful either, especially since objectification is the first step toward dehumanizing, which is the first step toward those institutionalized forms of misogyny.

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    2. I think we should start talking about reproductive justice. It's more encompassing, referring also to access.

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  3. "Because this is what most men...can understand in a scientific context but not in a personal one: The act of observation changes that which is being observed."

    Merely observing a thing has no effect whatsoever on that thing. To claim otherwise is to be expected in the metaphysical, neo-New Age Quantum Mystical nonsense of Deepak Chopra, Amit Gaswami, Ramtha the Enlightened One, The Secret, The Celestine Prophecy; their ilk and acolytes.

    To what scientific discipline does the author claim the notion that "The act of observation changes that which is being observed", belong?

    "The minute I know I am being looked at, even in a complimentary way, I change. Perhaps my walk changes; maybe I sway my hips a little more..."

    "Maybe I feel just the slightest twinge of apprehension every time I talk to the person I know has looked at me, has evaluated me;"

    This is a personal reaction to the perception of being "observed" and "evaluated". These are personal, subjective feelings that have little to nothing to do with the actor making the observation/"evaluation". Needless to say, observation is not evaluation.

    Perhaps the author has mistaken the observer-expectancy effect, expectancy or confirmation bias.

    Another misappropriation of quantum physics or merely a poor choice of metaphor?

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    1. The way I understood it, the observer effect was drawn from quantum theory and has been applied in a broader sense to interpersonal interactions. I'm using it loosely here; I'm not a scientist and don't claim to be.

      Yes, of course my reporting of the ways being observed alter my behavior are personal reactions--I don't claim otherwise. And the whole point of what I write about here is that when it comes to observation of women in public, the entire experience needs to be looked at from a subjective viewpoint. It's built into the name of this blog! I always appreciate comments that take a different tack than mine but I'm not sure what you're after here?

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    2. @Anonymous
      I believe the author was referring to the Observer effect, which is a perfectly valid scientific principle, as relates specifically to quantum physics:

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Observer_effect_(physics)

      You may disagree that it's an apt analogy for people, but it does not seem at all controversial to me to assert that human beings, in general, become more self-conscious when they know someone is staring at them.

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    3. Anonymous @ April 10: Indeed, that is what I was referring to--thank you for providing clarity. I mean, some of my friends who are parents of young children tell me not to immediately run over with cries of "Are you OK?!" when the kid falls, because most of the time the child is totally fine and will get up and brush themselves off--but if they know their fall was witnessed, they'll start to cry. It's just how we humans work much of the time.

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  4. I was a bit taken aback a month ago when my husband told me he never experienced being knowingly looked at, whereas, as a female, I've been looked at since age 12 or 13. I don't think that the observers realize what an impact their gaze has. And, even worse, that I'm supposed to be SOOO appreciative that they think I'm good looking. Dude, I'm just trying to be in my own world, listen to my music, have my own thoughts without you starring at me. I feel like that's not too much to ask for.

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    1. WORD. I almost wonder sometimes if raising the awareness of poor self-image connected to women's looks has backfired in this way--a well-meaning man might well think that he's doing something genuinely pro-woman by giving "reassurance" in the form of a compliment, not understanding that observation is the problem, not the end-result of judgment, whether positive or negative.

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  5. I had a funny situation the other day. I went to do my AIA presentation at a firm upstate and one of the principals was there early. He said my full name and then the usual, "that's quite a name" to which I made one of my three stock joke responses...and then he looked me up and down and said, "Well. You look good." It was the most odd comment and it put me off guard! Then I embraced it and was like, DAMN STRAIGHT I LOOK GOOD BIATCH! And went on with the show. Men will always look at women. It's human nature. Is it better they say nothing and continue to think the way they do or better that they feel comfortable being themselves? I don't know...

    I think that there is a responsibility on men's part to see women in the workplace as colleagues but on the other hand I think we ladies need to not read so deeply into every male comment. I will go on the reverse sexism and say, men will be men. It's innate for men to see women in a certain way.

    Because it was the POTUS and a high profile attorney make this an interesting case to evaluate.

    Intriguing article, A!

    ...and @anonymous I think you missed the point entirely!

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    1. Cameo, it sounds like you handled that with aplomb (and now I need to know your three stock joke responses and how they match up to my own hippie-hyphenated name...). I agree that there can be an overanalysis (guilty!) of these kinds of comments, and I certainly don't want to squelch workplace banter and camaraderie. But I also feel like looks-based compliments--even straightforward, well-intentioned ones--send a subtle message to the receiver that they are being evaluated. It's a pressure that one sex receives overwhelmingly more often than the other, and I can't help but wonder what role that plays in the pay disparity between men and women (which is full of contradictions in and of itself, but that's a different story). There's a level of self-monitoring that women do because of that awareness, and it's impossible to know exactly how much that monitoring affects us. Maybe it makes us more aware in general, which is a positive trait--but it bleeds into self-consciousness too.

      And at this moment I'm suddenly very grateful that I'm working from home for a stint! Only the cashiers at Key Food can comment on my appearance, ha!

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    2. "Men will be men"? That's the same logic that is used to justify victim blaming.

      "She shouldn't have been wearing that."

      "She shouldn't have been out at that hour, by herself, at that place..."

      "She should have known better."

      All these things imply that men cannot help themselves. The responsibility then falls of the victim, the women, to PREVENT rape. Instead of the perpetrator.

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    3. Amanda, I hear you on the logic line--the burden of women's freedom to walk through the world can't be on women alone. But what I hear in the "men will be men" statement is a practical understanding of the ways that we all (men and women) make sense of the ways we've constructed gender. I'm wondering if there's a way that men could be better incorporated into discussions of this sort that manage to challenge the they-can't-help-it part of "men will be men" without simply cordoning off the desires (and expression of desires) that we all feel. I wouldn't want to live without the charge that arises from interacting with people I'm potentially attracted to (and I know that's not what you're suggesting!). So then the question becomes, how can we help one another balance the competing strands of our humanity?

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  6. Good points. Thank you for the response! It's true what you stay about self-monitoring having an effect on our awareness and then possibly our performance.

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  7. Great post and a wonderful observation. I would add to what you're saying - in that context of when the comment hits a co-worker - POTUS comment affects all other Attys General (even the male ones), and all other women who work for him, and etc etc etc. As a public figure - "THE" public figure in almost every setting he is in - his words and comments have effects on his staff and the people around him.

    If I even worked in his admin staff, I would worry about what to wear to work after hearing public comments like this one.

    Also, for a mild Obama fan like me, if he chose to say this comment in public, on the record, what is his real-life demeanor with women who work for him? Like you said - he is a decidedly feminist politician (emphasis on the politics of his feminism) - but how deep does that run?

    Great blog - I'm a new reader - and huge congrats on your book deal!

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    1. Cinquecento, that's a great point: As, ahem, "the leader of the free world," Obama is indeed THE public figure. He's essentially setting an example with whatever he does in this realm--most of us will never have to rally to pass a bill in Congress, but we all have coworkers, you know?

      And pleased to "meet" you! Thank you for reading.

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