Was President Obama's Remark About California Attorney General Kamala Harris Sexist?

This question originally appeared on Quora.
Answer by Kat Li, Product Marketing and Business Development

A New York Magazine article by Dan Amira points out the fact that President Obama often uses the term "good-looking" to describe colleagues and noteworthy individuals:

  • Introducing HUD secretary Shaun Donovan last February, Obama declared, "There he is,the good-looking guy in the front here."
  • At a speech last March, Obama pointed out his secretary of the Interior, Ken Salazar, by calling him "a good-looking guy."
  • A couple of months ago, Obama gave a shout-out to the "outstanding Secretary of the Navy," Ray Mabus. "There he is right there -- the good-looking guy over at the end."
  • Obama even extended his favorite compliment to the Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins. "I have to say all of you look pretty good without your playoff beards," Obama said during a White House ceremony. "They're pretty good-looking guys without all that."

The post takes these as evidence to say, "In short, Obama is an equal-opportunity flatterer, not a shallow, sexist pig. Calling people "good-looking" -- men, women, Penguins -- is just something he does. It's almost a tic at this point. He doesn't mean anything by it."

And, for what it's worth, I believe this is true. I have no reason to believe that our president is sexist and ample evidence to demonstrate that he is in fact a feminist, constantly working to increase gender equality. His praise of Kamala Harris primarily focuses on her competence and work, tacking on the "best-looking" comment at the end. But the point that needs to be understood is one that Amira makes: "However, these remarks do not occur in a vacuum. That the accomplishments of women are routinely undermined by men who have trouble focusing on anything beyond physical attractiveness is universally understood." Obama is probably not sexist and only meant well, but commenting on Harris's appearance was not appropriate.

To illustrate this point, two recent studies* by Name It Change It Research have shown that any comment on a female politician's appearance, whether positive, neutral, or negative, has detrimental effects on how she is perceived, hurting her likability score, how in touch, how confident, effective, and qualified she seems, making voters less likely to vote for her. Given this evidence, one would be hard-pressed to argue that his appearance-based compliment was in anyway beneficial to Harris, in spite of any well-meaning intentions.


*One caveat to these studies is that they are not peer-reviewed academic published papers. This article points a few other caveats: How the 'System of Beauty' Hurts Female Politicians.

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