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.