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April 05, 2013 3:11 PM BFOQ

By Ed Kilgore

There’s the controversy over the president’s comments about the physical attractiveness of the Attorney General of California yesterday, and then there’s the controversy about the defenses various people (many of them journalists and/or Obama fans) have offered, and the second is now beginning to overtake the first. So let’s be clear: Obama has privately and publicly apologized to Kamala Harris for calling her “by far the best-looking attorney general in the country.” It should also be noted, in mitigation rather than defense, that he had praised her professional abilities before talking about her looks.

But Obama’s friends who aren’t apologizing also aren’t doing him any favors. The more I read, it’s clear the excuses (mostly of the “can’t you take a joke” variety, but some more aggressive about the right to rate women’s looks in public so long as it’s a “compliment”) are surviving sustained scrutiny all that well.

The definitive statement on the underlying issue was made by Salon’s Irin Carmon:

[If] you have trouble with understanding what context is appropriate for a discussion of someone’s attractiveness, let’s break it down by borrowing a term from discrimination law — BFOQ, which stands for bona fide occupational qualifications. Basically, it says that employers are allowed to discriminate only if the qualities in question are actually necessary and relevant to doing the job — so yes, female models to advertise women’s clothing, but no weight requirements for female flight attendants. Applying the BFOQ test for talking about women’s physical attributes, you might ask yourself the following questions: Are you having sex with this person you want to tell everyone is attractive? Are you trying to get them to agree to have sex with you? Is attractiveness part of their job and thus a professional attribute to be discussed like any other? Are you, perhaps, the cheek-pinching great-uncle of this person and thus entitled to a little slack? (Joe Biden has gotten away with lots, apparently under that unspoken provision.)
So far as I know, Obama can’t answer affirmatively to any of these questions when it comes to Kamala Harris. Fail.

I doubt it will happen again, particularly if Michelle Obama did not find the incident hilarious.

Ed Kilgore is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly. He is managing editor for The Democratic Strategist and a senior fellow at the Progressive Policy Institute. Find him on Twitter: @ed_kilgore.

Comments

  • c u n d gulag on April 05, 2013 3:18 PM:

    Yeah, it was over the line, and he's smart enough to know better.
    Not too much, but still...
    I like that BFOQ guideline. I'd never heard about it before.

    I suspect that the Mrs. Pres will put him on a rather severe beer, butt, cigar, and golf, diet for a while. And add groveling to his excercise program.

  • kindness on April 05, 2013 3:19 PM:

    I wasn't offended by the remark. Neither was Kamela as she was there.

  • Jim Strain on April 05, 2013 3:29 PM:

    Well, at least Obama didn't repeatedly refer to Ms. Harris as "He," as various Supreme Court justices recently did.

  • jjm on April 05, 2013 3:52 PM:

    Come on! She IS the best looking AG. And maybe the smartest. She will be governor after Brown's second term.

  • Chuck on Piggott on April 05, 2013 3:55 PM:

    Sometimes in politics being the best looking is a job qualification. And she is in an elected position.

  • red rabbit on April 05, 2013 4:04 PM:

    Biden gets a pass on supposed sexist comments but Obama doesnt just cuz it's part of Biden's image?
    More like a Carmon FAIL.

  • Zorro on April 05, 2013 4:17 PM:

    Basically, it says that employers are allowed to discriminate only if the qualities in question are actually necessary and relevant to doing the job — so yes, female models to advertise women’s clothing, but no weight requirements for female flight attendants.

    I'll likely get flamed for saying this, but in a time when jet fuel is getting more and more expensive, and some airlines are considering charging heavy passengers more than light ones, weight requirements for flight attendants, male and female, could be legitimate BFOQs.

    -Z

  • Keith M Ellis on April 05, 2013 4:29 PM:

    It's kind of amazing and deeply disheartening to see it demonstrated, as I have repeatedly, that there's quite a bit of sexism on the left, even though we kinda sorta expect it to be ... fringe? Something. But it's not. It's widespread.

    You can see it in this sort of case, where progressives offer exactly the same sort of argument defending sexism as conservatives do (can't take a joke, but she really is hot!, et cetera). You can easily and most egregiously see it with regard to discussion about hated conservatives who are female.

    Part of the impetus for defending Obama is that probably almost all of us on the left, given what we know about him, are inclined to very much not classify him as "sexist".

    The problem is that we've deeply embedded into our contemporary consciousness about "isms" that it's some sort of deep moral flaw that exist or doesn't exist in individual people. For example, we vilify racists because we are sure they are villains, someone is either a racist or not a racist, and being a racist means that someone is basically like being a member of the KKK (just more covert). So if someone is accused of doing something racist, that means that they are racist; and as an accusation of a deeply flawed moral character, it's an extremely serious accusation.

    But Obama is almost certainly not what we think of as "sexist" and so what do we do about this comment?

    The truth is that this whole paradigm of -isms being a flawed moral character that someone either has or doesn't have is wrong. Racism and sexism are institutionalized bigotry that is endemic in cultures, including ours, and it infects all of us, to a greater or lesser degree. We all will sometimes do or say sexist or racist things, we all will sometimes participate in sexist or racist institutions and structures ... it's impossible to completely avoid because it's deeply embedded in our culture. The issue is mostly how much we willingly participate in this and abide this state of affairs.

  • Citizen Alan on April 05, 2013 4:38 PM:

    The unspoken reality behind this mini-scandal is simply this: the Patriarchy is still with us and likely always will be, and even the strongest proponents of feminism (and I consider Obama a relatively strong proponent of feminism) must always be on guard against falling into a patriarchal mindset. As proof of this, I point to the first comment, by c u n d gulag, who notes that Obama's comment was sexist and that he should have known better ... and then immediately follows it up with the sexist comment that it should fall to Michelle Obama to set him right with some sort of hectoring nag campaign more appropriate to the wife in a 1950's family sitcom than an intelligent 21st century political spouse.

  • Ron Byers on April 05, 2013 4:39 PM:

    Too where have we descended if this is an issue worth anyones time?

    My CPPTCH is SEWER Agemptin

    Appropriate don't you think.

  • Anonymous on April 05, 2013 4:41 PM:

    Oh please.

    It was clearly merely friendly affection. She was THERE, and not like he was with a bunch of guys at a construction site.

    It was as if you would talk about a family member you were very proud of: they're smart, talented, qualified, competent, and oh BTW they're very attractive as well.

    WTF ?

  • bluestatedon on April 05, 2013 5:11 PM:

    The outrage and indignation would be more justified if Obama rubbed his crotch, thrust his pelvis back and forth, licked his lips, and rolled his eyes as he made the comment. The idea that Obama was making the comment as a reflection of his opinions of her professional worth is idiotic. He put more women on the Federal bench in a first term —72 — than any other President in history. The fact that he nominated Kagan and Sotomayor for the Supreme Court should be evidence enough that he doesn't regard physical attractiveness as playing any role whatsoever in his assessment of qualifications.

    I'll save my outrage for his proposed cuts to Social Security.

  • Pat on April 05, 2013 5:16 PM:

    Beautiful comment, Keith.

    I like to do a thought experiment where I reverse the sexes in a situation and imagine what the reaction might be. For example, pretend a male president compliments a male AG for being handsome. This would largely be assumed to be ribbing. Pretend a female president compliments a younger male (or the mayor of Houston, he's pretty hot). Could be creepy. Female to female? Seems unlikely to happen.

    All together, I'm not getting the "this is a horrible thing to say." While women do get judged inappropriately, this seems on the level of background noise for sexism.

  • Daryl on April 05, 2013 5:37 PM:

    I think the comments about Michelle Obama setting the president straight are a little bit more problematic. They fall into the stereotype of the "Angry Black Woman" reprimanding her trifling man. Why would we assume that Michelle would set the President straight?

  • Mimikatz on April 05, 2013 6:43 PM:

    She may well be the best looking AG, but she isn't the smartest by a long shot. She picks a few pet issues and ignores the rest of the work the AG's office does. She is not at all good on the environment. She seems uninterested in using her independent powers to advance policies that would be good for the state. Above all, she is a relentless self-promoter. But she did endorse Obama very early on, so she's got political smarts.

    Obama's remark is more evidence of his difficulty with banter and schmoozing. He really isn't an extrovert and is a bit socially awkward for all his other skills. I'm sure Michelle doesn't put up with any sexism, and the girls are getting old enough to call him on it as well. I think he was trying to praise her and it came out awkwardly. Not worth getting exercised about.

  • Jerry O'Brien on April 05, 2013 9:08 PM:

    No outrage by me. It's a fundraiser. They are all friends there, or pretending to be. Every prominent official on the scene gets flattered, pretty much TV talk show style. Bona fide occupational qualifications are simply not at issue.

  • Hannah on April 05, 2013 9:33 PM:

    Unfortunately looks do get people further, both males and females, it's been proven over and over, and that *is* a problem; people should be judged by their smarts, hard work, and qualifications... unless appearance makes a difference, such as the model example. The acknowledgement of someone's attractiveness (unless it's crude) among friends should be OK, but if Obama didn't know Harris, then it would definitely be out of bounds. In the context of his remark I don't think it was a problem... as the president may present an example for others, it is.

    OTOH, too many Republicans have gleefully announced (even though it's not true) that their own women are attractive while Democratic women are not. So this faux outrage at the president by them is pretty hilarious and of course hypocritical. Especially after all the Palin lust. Good g-d.

  • joe on April 05, 2013 11:04 PM:

    sorry, no pass from me. this is his schtick constantly. he's also always acting the hen pecked husband. remember when he went on about how the federal budget is like a family budget and he wasn't going to buy any golf clubs and michelle wasn't going to buy any dresses? the way he refers to the relationship with his wife creeps me out. not like they're equals. like she rules the roost with an iron fist. act like a grownup please. agree with comment above that obama is just socially awkward.

  • james on April 06, 2013 12:38 AM:

    I'm not one to judge. Being a gay man, I find several other attorneys general much more attractive -- Biden of Delaware, Conway of Kentucky, Gansler of Maryland, and Delaney of New Hampshire, based solely on their photos at the National Association of Attorneys General website.

  • pjcamp on April 06, 2013 1:19 AM:

    It's bad but it's not a backrub.

  • jonh on April 06, 2013 7:03 AM:

    This is a minor gaffe, and The Press has been starved of Obama scandals for some 5 years now. It seems to me they could more profitably dig around in the drones/domestic spying/??? We had Reagan's jelly beans, Bush's jerky, Clinton's bj, W's language mishaps, and each was a splendid and worthwhile distraction from more important things. Maybe when Hilary is busy assassinating political rivals we'll finally learn more about her pantsuits.

  • smartalek on April 06, 2013 7:14 AM:

    @pjcamp:
    Nope, and not even a footrub (let alone the holy of holies).
    But are you insinuating that California is like unto a foreign country? Should they be allowed to apply for NATO membership?

  • beejeez on April 06, 2013 10:13 AM:

    Well, obviously we have to impeach him now.