I wasn’t planning to write about the dust-up after Obama called California’s Kamala Harris the country’s “best-looking attorney general.” After all, he apologized almost immediately, it happened a week ago, and I thought we could all agree he shouldn’t have done that and then move on.
But then I saw this headline: “Kamala Harris’ Star Power Buoyed by Obama ‘Best-Looking Attorney General’ Comment.”
The story, on NBC Bay Area, says that Harris’s “profile increased since Obama’s comments” and that “[a]ccording to ‘most experts,’ it is ‘only a matter of time’ before the upwardly-mobile Harris … moves onto a new job” with a greater national profile.
Basically, writer Chris Roberts is saying: Harris is lucky that Obama said she was attractive! It boosted her prospects!
No. No, no, no, no.
Other writers, like Amanda Marcotte at Slate, have discussed why the kind of “benevolent sexism” showcased by Obama’s comment is bad for women as a whole (it pressures women into subservient roles). But sexism can be hard to pin down. Sometimes iit can seem like it is only in the eye of the beholder, which is why Arianna Huffington can tell people to “lighten up,” about the Harris comment while Marcotte can say unequivocally that it is harmful, and why the Washington Post’s Ruth Marcus can write a lovely column explaining why she sees both sides.
But do you know what is not a matter of opinion? It turns out that when the media writes stories about a woman candidate’s appearance—even in a neutral way—people think less of her.
Harris isn’t a candidate, of course. Not yet. But the point of the NBC Bay Area article—and the story it was based on, from the San Jose Mercury News—was that Harris’s future candidacy might be affected by Obama’s comment (she is a superstar and there is speculation that she could run for governor of California, for example, or sit on the US Supreme Court).
But the NBC Bay Area story misrepresented Josh Richman’s comprehensive Mercury News piece. It didn’t say that Obama’s comment will buoy Harris’s political aspirations. Instead, the original story quotes three people who disagree about what the outcome for Harris will be.
The first says the “kerfuffle” may have raised her profile in Hollywood; the second says it likely won’t hurt her. The third expert sees it differently. “Siobhan ‘Sam’ Bennett, president and CEO of She Should Run, wrote that as Harris looks to the future, she must “stamp this stuff out as it happens or have someone else stamp it out for her, because if they don’t, there is an electoral impact.”
Bennett based her comment on a new survey released Monday by her organization’s Name It, Change It campaign against media sexism. The survey shows that any media coverage of a woman’s appearance—positive, negative, or neutral—results in a “price at the polls.”
“After voters hear language about the woman candidate’s appearance,” says a statement on the Name It, Change It site, “they are LESS likely to think she is experienced, strong, effective, qualified and confident.”
Not just negative language; any language about a woman’s appearance at all.
This is how the survey worked: Respondents were asked to read bios of Jane Smith and John Doe, fictional candidates for Congress. After the reading, slightly more of them said they’d vote for Jane, 49 to 48 percent.
Kevin Drum at Mother Jones does a nice job of breaking down what happened next:
In one version of the story, there’s no physical description of either candidate, and Jane’s lead stays pretty much the same. In a second version, there’s a neutral description of Jane’s appearance. Suddenly she’s 5 points behind Dan. In a third version, there’s a positive description of her appearance. Now she’s 13 points behind Dan. A fourth version that contains a negative description has about the same effect.
In other words, any description hurts Jane. And any non-neutral description, even a positive one, just kills her.
Because she isn’t currently a candidate, Obama’s remarks didn’t necessarily hurt Kamala Harris. But if she had been running, they would have hurt her. Not just what the President said, but the media coverage of his words. Name It, Change It says that male candidates are just not affected in the same way (of course, their appearance isn’t covered in the same way, either).
This should startle those of us in the media who routinely mention what women candidates are wearing (A pantsuit! A designer dress! Killer heels!) without a second thought. It turns out that writing about a woman candidate’s appearance is never neutral. And if it’s never neutral, then it’s never appropriate. We need to cover the uproar, of course, when the President makes a miscalculated remark. But the next time a woman is running for President—or any office—what we don’t have to do is mention her pantsuit, her hair, or her lipstick. Because how she’s dressed and how attractive she is has nothing to do with her competence or her views. And we shouldn’t sway voters, no matter how unintentionally, into thinking that they do.Jennifer Vanasco is a is a news editor at WNYC and the former editor in chief of MTV Network's LGBT news site 365gay.com. She writes about social minorities, national politics, and culture. Her award-winning newspaper column on gay and women's issues ran for 15 years. Tags: kamala harris, Kevin Drum, mother jones, Obama, San Jose Mercury News, Slate