The XX Factor

Elena Kagan’s Gender Matters

Deborah Rhode has compiled examples of conservative pundits who appear to believe that their own unwillingness to prong Elena Kagan should disqualify her from the court, and Rhode uses this as a platform to discuss what she calls “one of the last frontiers of acceptable bigotry”-looksism, bigotry based on physical attractiveness. I don’t disbelieve her, exactly, but I’m hard pressed to understand why the examples Rhode gives differ enough from traditional sexism to warrant a whole new analytical lens. As Rhode notes, it’s not like good-looking women somehow sail through life without their looks becoming an issue, as they often suffer from people thinking their good looks equal less intelligence. You can’t be hot, but you can’t be not hot-from where I’m sitting, it seems like the situation is set up so that any woman’s ability to perform a professional job can be questioned on the basis of looks at any time.

Evaluating a woman’s ability to do a job as a pundit, judge, or author based on her prongability goes deeper than the immediate problems with a porridge standard where everyone’s either too hot or not enough for the chorus of looks-obsessed Goldilocks out there. Sexists run straight to looks as a measure because it’s a subjective judgment. “Ugly” goes along with “angry” and “emotional” as adjectives to discredit women, because you can’t whip out a thermometer and say, “Actually, what you’re calling ‘ugly’ (or ‘angry’ or ‘irrational’) has to drop below a threshold of 77 degrees, and I’m at a steady 95 here.” Thomas at Yes Means Yes blog recently put up two posts describing just this problem. And he’s right-you can ask the most beautiful feminist writers and activists out there if they’ve been called ugly, and every one will tell you not only that they have, but that they often accumulate dedicated male enemies who make it their life mission to “prove” that you’re way uglier than perhaps other people think. Often, the very same ones will also be accused on other occasions of being too beautiful to take seriously.

As Thomas notes, the purpose of this exercise is to question a woman’s basic right to perform jobs that aren’t centered around their sexual usefulness to men.  Irin at Jezebel got to the heart of this problem when she explained why it doesn’t feel like objectification when women ogle cute soccer players:

They’re having fun doing what they love.
This needs little explanation. No sexyface, no corpse-like poses, just spontaneous shirt-shedding and teammate grabbing.

It’s so ubiquituous that it starts to pass notice, but “hot” is often established in women by studiously avoiding anything that sends a signal that you’re having a subjective experience.  And if you doubt this, think of how much grief women get if they dare walk around in public lost in their own thoughts-it’s just a matter of time before some man will instruct you to smile. (This has even happened to me online, when a man complained that I wasn’t smiling in a photo taken of me on a presentation where I was concentrating on what someone on the panel was saying. Sometimes I think I should just wear a Joker mask when there’s a possibility I’m going to be photographed while doing any kind of thinking.) The point of “sexyface” is that it’s not a face that someone could possibly make while having a subjective experience, much less be engaging in professional employment. That’s why it’s called “objectification”-the subjective is scrubbed out and you exist to please potential viewers.

The freakout over looks when a woman achieves high professional status has very little to do with these women actually being hideous-Kagan is the epitome of average looking-and more a result of some people’s inability to reconcile the role of woman with the role of presidential candidate or Supreme Court justice.