President Obama, despite having a mostly feminist policy record, occasionally screws it up on a personal level. Yesterday, this side of him peeked out when he called California’s attorney general Kamala Harris “by far, the best looking attorney general,” though at least he bothered to praise the quality of her work first. The forces of Twitter feminism, many male (woot), rebuked Obama.
Unsurprisingly, the defensive whining started immediately. Dylan Byers of Politico tweeted, “How did it become so difficult to call a woman good looking in public?” Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post demanded that people “lighten up,” adding, “you’d swear the president was guilty of luridly cat-calling a woman he doesn’t know.” (Note: Being acquainted with someone does not necessarily make it better to make boorish comments about them in front of an audience.)
Underlying all this whining is the assumption that because comments about women’s looks are compliments, they must be harmless. Melanie Tannenbaum, a social psychologist writing for Scientific American, recently perused the research on benevolent sexism—of which complimenting a woman’s looks in a professional setting is a prime example—and found that the “lighten up” crowd has it all wrong. “Although it is tempting to brush this experience off as an overreaction to compliments or a misunderstanding of benign intent,” she writes, “benevolent sexism is both real and insidiously dangerous.”
Tannenbaum quotes a seminal 1996 paper on the issue written by researchers Peter Glick and Susan Fiske, in which they discovered that benevolent sexism is highly correlated with hostile sexism in cross-cultural comparisons. When it comes to pressuring women into subservient societal roles, think of benevolent sexism as the carrot and hostile sexism as the stick. Glick and Fiske specifically singled out “compliments” in the workplace:
Benevolent sexism is not necessarily experienced as benevolent by the recipient. For example, a man’s comment to a female coworker on how ‘cute’ she looks, however well-intentioned, may undermine her feelings of being taken seriously as a professional (Glick & Fiske, 1996, p. 491-492).
Even when the researchers controlled for the expression of hostile sexism, the prevalence of benevolent sexism predicted women’s secondary status in a culture. Tannenbaum explains that when men endorsed benevolent sexism in a culture, “men also lived longer, were more educated, had higher literacy rates, made significantly more money, and actively participated in the political and economic spheres more than their female counterparts.” Tannenbaum also describes a more recent paper, by Julia Becker and Stephen Wright, suggesting that when women are exposed to benevolent sexism, they tend to become more accepting of discrimination against women. As a tool to keep women playing along with male dominance, benevolent sexism works far better than hostile sexism; no wonder we’re seeing it so fiercely defended.
Obama has done so much good work in leaving a better world for his daughters and all other young women: He’s passed equal pay legislation, put two great women on the Supreme Court and made contraception access easier for women with health insurance. It’s a shame to see him undermine his enlightened policies with comments that highlight women’s ever-present decorative duties—especially when we know for a fact that such remarks erode women’s opportunities and even their own sense of deserving equality.