President Obama's recent remark that Kamala Harris is "by far the best looking Attorney General" (for which he has since apologized) sparked a great deal of feminist outrage, as well as — predictably — confusion from those who don't perceive the latent sexism in what they saw as an innocuous compliment. One such confused human was the Washington Post's Jonathan Capeheart, who wrote an op-ed titled "Obama was right about Kamala Harris" in which he argues that the comment was harmless because "Obama and Harris are longtime friends." Oh, okay, it's fine to publicly indulge in sexist behavior that trivializes an accomplished woman if you've hung out with her at the Democratic Convention. After all, everyone knows that having a private relationship with someone totally justifies you turning her body into an object of public discourse. Capeheart ended his polemic with the command to "lighten up, people." It's just a compliment! Come on, guys!
However, it turns out that the allegedly dour and oversensitive denizens of the planet who criticized the president's comment are pretty much completely justified. According to a study just released by Name It. Change It., any comment on a female politician's appearance — whether positive, neutral, or negative — is detrimental to public opinion of her.
The survey polled 1,500 likely voters after having them read fabricated news stories about a male candidate, Dan Jones, as well as a female candidate, Jane Smith. In the control group, in which there was no mention of Jane Smith's appearance, the two candidates were neck and neck. Three other news stories commented on Jane Smith's appearance in a positive light, a neutral light, and a negative light (distressingly, they used actual quotes from 2012 election coverage). Each of these articles made her lose ground — interestingly, but perhaps not surprisingly, the positive description was more harmful than the neutral one.
The implications of this are not difficult to parse. The way that a woman presents herself in public is rife with historical and political connotations; a woman's appearance is seen as somehow integral to her public persona in a way that a man's isn't (the survey found that Dan Jones "paid no price" for appearance-based coverage). As Maureen Dowd implied in a column this weekend, Hillary Clinton's decision to change her hairstyle has the ability to transform her from a "K.G.B villainess in a Bond movie" to a viable and likable presidential candidate. This sort of analysis is not only unproductive — it's sexist and contributes to a societal belief that female politicians should be taken less seriously than their male counterparts and judged using more superficial criteria.
On the positive side, the survey did find a solution to this sadly commonplace tendency: when female candidates publicly respond by stating that their personal appearance is not newsworthy and shouldn't be discussed, they're able to regain lost ground.