Barack Obama has apologized for calling Kamala Harris "by far the best-looking attorney general in the country." This was AFTER he had already praised her as "tough," "fair," "brilliant" and "dedicated."
Political commentator Joan Walsh said the comment made her stomach turn.
Ms. Walsh must have a delicate stomach. Kamala Harris, who once said Obama "looked like a million bucks" is not complaining about his compliment. This is a storm in a very small teacup. Obama and Kamala Harris go back a long time. He was at an event where he was good-humoredly talking not just about Harris' looks but also how baseball great Jackie Robinson's widow looked "gorgeous" at 90. And face it, Harris, like Obama, is a very good-looking politician and cameras love both of them. Obama's compliment was NOT sexism and it's important to acknowledge that. The Indian newspaper the Telegraph bemoans in an editorial "This mix of political correctness and fantastical over-interpretation" which leads to a tendency "to miss the spirit of a certain manner of putting things because of misplaced earnestness about matters pertaining to gender, sexuality and race."
This isn't just political correctness run amok. It perpetuates every unfair stereotype of feminists as dour and humourless, trigger-happy about screaming "sexism" at the slightest opportunity.
That's not to say sexism cannot come dressed up in a compliment. This just wasn't one of those moments, but here are five simple commandments on how to avoid the sexism trap when you are a male politician who feels the need to charm a woman in public.
Thou shalt not call her "sweetie". Obama has, as one headline quipped, "an executive sweet" problem. In 2008, a female reporter from Detroit asked him a question about auto-workers. "Hold on one second there, sweetie," he replied. She was clearly not amused, especially when he didn't even answer the question. "This sweetie never did get an answer to the question," she said later. He also told a fan at a campaign stop, "Sweetie, if I start with a picture, I will never get out of here." Obama habitually calls Michelle "sweetie" which itself is slightly sickeningly sweet PDA. But that's between the president and his wife. General rule of thumb: The only person always allowed to say sweetie in public is a bored older waitress with a dyed bouffant at an all-night American diner who says, "And do you want coffee or orange juice with that, sweetie?"
Thou shalt not leap to her looks. This one seems very tricky for politicos to understand. It's one thing to tell your female friend, "Oh you are looking lovely tonight," at a social event. It's another thing to say the same to a colleague or, worse, a complete stranger who is just trying to do her job. When a journalist asks a question, she is expecting an answer, not a compliment about her wardrobe, her looks or her hairdo. Indian politician Sharad Yadav was once asked by a woman which state was doing better, Madhya Pradesh or Bihar. Yadav, trying to smartly duck the question, said, "Whole country is good." Then unable to stop himself, he added, "Even you are very beautiful." No wonder the man waxes eloquently in Parliament about the romance of stalking while his colleague complains about "painted and dented ladies."
Thou shalt not gush over her cooking first. Douglas Martin of the New York Times landed himself in hot water by leading his obituary of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill with the words, "She made a mean beef stroganoff, followed her husband from job to job and took eight years off from her work to raise three children. 'The world's best mom,' her son Matthew said." Brill was also the only woman doing rocket science in the 1940s and that was the reason why she even merited a New York Times obituary. Martin thought he was building up the drama, but he just needed to have asked himself if he would have ever begun the obit of a male nuclear scientist thus: "He grilled the perfect steak, always remembered his wife's birthday and made it a point to go to his son's football games." It's not rocket science.
Thou shalt not use ma-behen like a salt and pepper shaker. Narendra Modi, the chief minister of the state of Gujarat who wants to be India's next prime minister, lays on the ma-behen (mother-sister) thick when he talks about women, though he also once disparaged a cabinet minister's Rs 50 crore girlfriend. Talking to the businesswomen at a business summit, Modi even asked them to bless him because they were all mothers out there. During the rape debate, we heard over and over again from politicians oozing sincerity about how women were our mothers and sisters. "I find it offensive, because as citizens of this country or any other country, we are entitled to fundamental human rights that have bloody nothing to do with whether I am your sister or your mother or anybody," retorted Mallika Dutt, the executive director of the NGO Breakthrough at that time. Not to mention the fact, she pointed out, that "the home is often the most unsafe space for women."
Thou shalt not put women in binders. Mitt Romney, trying hard to put forth his pro-women credentials, put his foot in his mouth in the presidential debates by touting how as governor of Massachusetts he had "binders full of women." Poor Romney wanted to show off his outreach to women's groups but all he ended up doing was launch a thousand mocking Internet memes. Romney obviously meant to show off his interest in gender parity but as the Shortcuts blog on the Guardian pointed out, "He managed to conjure an image confirming every feminist's worst fears about a Romney presidency; that he views women's rights in the workplace as so much business admin, to be punched and filed and popped on a shelf."
By the way, in that same speech where he praised Kamala Harris' looks, Obama also singled out Asian-American congressman Mike Honda for a little friendly ribbing.
First of all, somebody who works tirelessly on behalf of California every day, but also works on behalf of working people and makes sure that we've got a more inclusive America -- a good friend of mine, somebody who you guys should be very proud of, Congressman Mike Honda is here. Where is Mike? (Applause.) He is around here somewhere. There he is. Yes, I mean, he's not like a real tall guy, but he's a great guy.
Now that is the president of the United States literally looking down on an Asian American man. At least he was complimenting Kamala Harris. Poor Honda just got the short end of the stick. Where is the Society of Height-Challenged Asian Men and Friends when you need them?
Another version of this blog originally appeared on Firstpost.com.