Of course, O was being genuine in his flattery. He clearly values good looks, and he likes looking good himself. He works out, gets photographed shirtless, praises his wife Michelle all the time (that’s okay!) and doesn’t have his own body insecurities. When asked in 2008 whether he wears boxers or briefs, he replied, “I don’t answer those humiliating questions. But whichever it is, I look good in them!”
So how is telling a woman she looks good offensive? Because in a country where trafficked women’s bodies are for sale, where gang-rapes of teen girls and victim-blaming are on the rise, and where statehouses across the land are trying to return women to forced child-bearing, reminding women that how they look still matters is sexist.
It is offensive as long as women—historically valued chiefly for how we look—still have vastly less power than men and are egregiously underrepresented in all corporate boardrooms, in Congress, in academia, in the elite media and, yes, in the White House.
The other problem with the president drawing attention to a female officeholder’s looks is that women believe—and objective evidence backs them up—that being pretty actually helps women succeed.
The opposite is, quite unfairly, totally not true.
I realize cute males in politics like Gavin Newsom and centerfold ex-Senator Scott Brown get their fair share of attention. But the vast majority of powerful men are not hot. They never have to be. Whenever I run into Harvey Weinstein, for example, or look at pictures of Mitch McConnell, I try to imagine a woman looking that way and getting to where they are.
Sexism is subtly and pervasively sewn into the fabric of society. Because women participate in it all the time, it’s easy for men to complain that they don’t get why our president ought not to be commenting on how prominent public officials look.
There’s a name for what O did. Social psychologists call it “benevolent sexism.” Melanie Tannenbaum, writing in Scientific American last week, pointed out how benevolent sexism explained The New York Times’s obit of rocket scientist Yvonne Brill, which started off with a description of her cooking skills.
Benevolent sexism looks a lot nicer than hostile, open sexism, Ms. Tannenbaum writes. It justifies the power imbalance between men and women, as much as—or perhaps even more than—open misogyny.
Calling a woman a bitch, a ho, a stupid girl is actually not as insidious, because it’s out in the open. Benevolent sexism perpetuates ideas that diminish women’s already limited power without giving outright offense. And if you don’t like it, you are missing a good-humor chip.
“Although it is tempting to brush this experience off as an overreaction to compliments or a misunderstanding of benign intent, benevolent sexism is both real and insidiously dangerous,” Ms. Tannenbaum writes.
The costs of benevolent sexism can be seen in every boardroom and political body in America, where women are underrepresented because they are not considered powerful or serious enough to do the job.
The day might come—for our granddaughters, I wish, but probably beyond—when gender parity arrives. Then, how America’s female political leaders look and dress will matter as little as it does for our male leaders. And then, our president will be able to say whatever she wants.