Why Are Women So 'Bright'?

"I think she did a really good job last night. I think she's a bright member of our caucus, and it's one of the reasons I appointed her to the Intelligence Committee." ~ Speaker John Boehner on Michele Bachmann's debate performance.

Ever notice how often men refer to women as "bright?" Ever notice how often whites refer to blacks as "bright?" Ever notice you rarely hear white men praised for their brightness, unless they're either very young or very old? It's an interesting compliment. It's the same word used for toddlers and the developmentally disabled and others who show an unexpected aptitude.

It seems every time a woman is about to be appointed to something, we hear how "bright" she is. Justice Elena Kagan, as David Brooks says, is "bright and accomplished." Plenty of other accomplished people have been praised for their ability to give off light -- Barack Obama, Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (who was called "bright" in the same breath as "attractive" and "probably a good mom"), even Sarah Palin. It is a relative term. But why don't people use that word for someone like Rep. Paul Ryan who's "brave" and "smart?"

Of course, we know why some people are "bright" rather than "smart"... they shine in spite of their inherent weakness. But why not call white men bright? Can't we be bright too, even though being a smart white male is clearly redundant? Does brightness require some kind of intrinsic darkness against which to illuminate? A 100-watt bulb is a bright bulb even if it's outshone by 1000-watt stadium lights. Why is the term reserved for people who ostensibly are otherwise dim?

Maybe bright doesn't mean smart. Maybe it means noticeable. A bright student is noticeable among other students, the word "student" here placing him kindly among others who are still learning. Michele Bachmann was noticeable during the GOP debate; maybe that's what the Speaker meant. But Boehner didn't say she was bright, he said she is bright, that she's been bright all along, that she herself is astute not in spite of being a Republican candidate -- which in this field doesn't require many photons -- but in spite of, you know, being a woman. Or maybe he meant smart despite being a member of his caucus. But then what does that say about him and his caucus?

In the end though, it's not just what the flatterer is saying about the flatteree that makes bright different from smart, it's really what he's saying about himself. That noticeability -- the "I notice it" -- is what makes it indeed a compliment... a self-compliment. It's the honoring of oneself with the unique ability to recognize the elusive quality of brightness. When I tell you that you're bright, I'm telling you that if you are one of those brave people of color or estrogen who are able to overcome their poorly-lit genes and show intelligence, you too can be granted the glittering badge of brightness from a person qualified to know -- me, an achromic non-woman.

Now, that probably sounds a tad condescending, especially to the non-incandescent female. But have sympathy: It's not bad enough that, according to a recent survey of whites, whites are the most discriminated against, or that men have to continually suffer from domestic abuse. Boehner, Brooks and I, as white men, we also own the burden of bestowing "brights" to deserving Others.

Believe me, it's not easy. It takes a smart, brave man to see brightness. And judging from the color of Boehner's skin, he's seen a lot of it.