I've been thinking about my conflicting intuitions on Obama's compliment to Kamala Harris, which he has since apologised for; after complimenting her intellect and dedication, he remarked that she was "the best looking attourney-general in the country". This happened at a DNC fundraiser 3 days ago. I've been rereading Kate Millett's "Sexual Politics" recently (among other books) while thinking about a knotty (but unrelated) legal philosophy problem and also thinking about issues between sex-positivity and efforts to desexualise conferences; this is at least worthy of comment.
Whatever norms we make, they generally ought to apply equally to both genders, regardless of histories-of-this and patterns-of-that. Exceptions are possible if justified; that's the general rule.
Pulling me one way is great irritation that so often women are judged by their attractiveness first, no matter the context and often in very crude ways. I've yelled at people who see a female newscaster on AlJ's YT videos and comment that they'd like to sleep with her. Ignoring whatever the news is. That's problematic. However, it's also something that I can trace to my own thoughts (but which I refrain from expressing); when I see people, I classify them in many different ways on an almost instinctual level; are they fat? ugly? attractive? single? male? female? and so on.. once I've made an initial accessment and maybe started figuring out if they're likely to be someone I don't want to be around, someone I'd likely ignore, a possible acquaintance, a possible friend, or a possible significant other, I'll then listen, but the classification comes first and it's always ongoing and I don't really feel I could stop it. On the occasion I've not been single, the process changes a little bit, but I still undergo it because it's not purely about significant others. Like everyone else, I prefer certain things for my friendships and nobody really likes hanging out with ugly people; if someone's cool in a lot of other ways it may be overbalanced, but it's a natural negative.
I'm at peace with that. If I classify people before and during my interactions with them, it's fine. They can classify me too. There is more repression among women in expressing it though, and that's interesting. Should it be expressed? Is it a distraction? At times, yes. There's an interesting tension between the sex-positive feminisms and mainstram feminisms on this topic. As a bisexual, I'm as likely to enjoy seeing a guy in running tights as a gal (not exactly true; for the bits of the body highlit there, men have the edge by my aesthetics). Should I be nervous about expressing that? Some theorists see a problem not in the noticing/enjoying of these things, but in the expressions that change the nature of an interaction/scene. If someone wants to be doing business, maybe it's a problem to try to introduce aesthetic concerns?
Still, the president's compliment doesn't rise to this. It's noting someone to be attractive. Would we be bothered by someone looking particularly sharp, or consistently well-dressed being mentioned as such? Should I be bothered on the occasion that people might say I look nice? There are some strands of activism that say we should have different standards for men or women based on this because of historical repression, but I've never bought that; the same standards need to apply, with no conversational privilege (I wonder how they'd deal with same-sex remarks, either for straights or non-straights). Whatever solution we come up with must pass the test of reciprocality; our conversational standards for the future can't be trying to make up for injustices by having a situational unevenness.
This doesn't get me much closer to a position so far, but hopefully it's been an interesting journey.
There are some bits that might eventually fit into a position:
- Death-of-the-author (one of the few third-wave ideas I laud) - The meaning preferred by a person for an act doesn't usually matter; viewers can seek their own meaning in ways that are transformative rather than communicative, with original intent just being one angle
- I'm reasonably sex-positive (but not of the pro-poly sort)
- I'm conversationally generally quite libertine because of my commitment to mental pluralism (to the extent that I think communities that have bad habits of discourse, whether they're trying to be "safe zones" or not, need to be busted)
- I think wearing multiple hats at the same time and keeping some things under one's hat is proper and decent. So is balancing expressions in one direction (aesthetics) with those of others.
In the meantime, my gut feeling is that it's ok that the Obama said what he did and that an apology was not necessary. Had he only introduced her as eye candy, it would've been a problem, but as-is right now I view it similarly to how I would had Obama introduced someone whom he said was an exceptionally sharp dresser.