California Attorney General Kamala Harris is brilliant, accomplished, and by all accounts has a very promising political future.
President Barack Obama and Attorney General Harris are close personal friends, so when he reportedly said at a Democratic fundraiser about Harris, “She’s brilliant and she’s dedicated, she’s tough…She also happens to be, by far, the best looking attorney general,” the president certainly meant it as a harmless compliment about a friend. But his comments about Harris’ looks in a public space are not appropriate.
President Obama is a feminist ally which is why it’s important to call this remark out, with love, in order to bring awareness to the issue of sexism in politics.
The focus on Harris’ looks is not new. Harris’ run for district attorney in 2003 was wrought with sexism.
Salon’s Joan Walsh wrote yesterday, that while covering Harris’ race in 2003, she received calls from Democrats who wanted to comment on how Harris’ success was in part because she was physically attractive and had a past personal relationship with former San Francisco mayor Willie Brown.
Kamala Harris’ looks are irrelevant
Harris’ physical appearance is not relevant, in terms of how she does her job. Harris is not a fashion model; she’s the chief law enforcement officer in the state of California and should be judged on her credentials and nothing more.
Adding her looks to a list of adjectives describing her talent diminishes her accomplishments, even if the president said it in an off-the-cuff passing comment. Harris should be praised for her record, not her physical allure. Women are not objects who simply exist for male commodification.
Harris is by all accounts a very serious person, tackling important issues, including sex trafficking and the death penalty. That’s all that matters. Her looks are not relevant to her skills and performance as attorney general and they don’t matter when she is evaluated for how she does her job. Harris is not a fashion model or a woman up on display.
Good intentions don’t make it right
The president’s remarks, while mild mannered and with no malicious intent, are still problematic because they come in the context of a culture which more often than not values how a woman looks above everything else. The context of the president’s comments matter both in terms of the public setting with which they were made, and the sexist culture with which they permeate in our collective psyche.
Calling out the president for these remarks doesn’t mean he’s a bad person or even that he is sexist.
As I said before, President Obama is an ally. This past weekend, Melissa Harris-Perry laid out a number of rules on how to be a good ally, which included, “be[ing] open to learning and expanding your consciousness by listening more and talking less.”
There are many allies and Obama supporters who don’t think what the president said is problematic and who think this is all much ado about nothing. But it’s important to remind people that Attorney General Harris is a smart and successful person based on her merits and there are plenty of other compliments the president could have offered up in that public setting that would not have been inappropriate.
The hope is that Obama is listening and the next time he will simply say, “She’s brilliant and dedicated. She’s tough,” and stop talking.
Follow Zerlina Maxwell at @ZerlinaMaxwell