Why Obama's 'Best-Looking Attorney General' Comment Was a Gaffe

The system of beauty, the system of power, and Kamala Harris

Eric Risberg/AP Images

President Obama's biggest gaffe yesterday when speaking of California Attorney General Kamala Harris was not in flirtatiously complimenting her as "the best-looking attorney general," but in introducing an observation from the system of beauty into a forum that was about the system of power.

What's that, you say? Irin Carmon does a great job in Salon in laying out the bounds of propriety for when it's appropriate to talk about a woman's looks as a general matter. But I've long felt we lack a solid theoretical underpinning for easily discussing these issues, and why precisely it is that admiring and complimenting women for the beauty they work so hard to maintain--and let's be clear, nobody looks like Harris at her age (48) without effort and without herself valuing beauty and fitness, which are achievements as much or more than naturally occurring properties--can sometimes be inappropriate.

It seems to me--and I touched on this a bit a 2009 Slate piece--that a simple distinction between the two worlds in which women today operate can help us think about this: They are the system of beauty, and the system of power.

The system of beauty is what preceded women's entry into the paid workforce in a bid to achieve economic equality and professional fulfillment. It operates everywhere in the world, according to regionally variable standards, but goes a little something like this: Women are a natural resource, a form of wealth that men can acquire. Beauty and, to a lesser extent, fertility, are the coinage in this system of value. In contemporary America, women can choose the extent to which they wish to engage with this system of power, but there's no question that it remains extant, and that in many ways the most economically successful women are those who use it best to their advantage--actresses, models, musicians, and the like. Beauty is a system of power, deeply rooted, preceding all others, richly rewarded. We pay homage to it, still, and young women as they face the world can make a choice to live a life--even a career--within it, just as they can choose to go to law or medical school or contend in any other way for standing and earning capacity in the world.

That is, they can enter the system of power. Power as the acquisition of status, capital, position, knowledge, property. And for a reason other than the exploitation of the resource of the physical self. The fight of feminism was the fight of women for entry into the system of power from the system of beauty. The fight in the workplace for women very often is to create a space for themselves within the system of power while continuing to operate within the system of beauty in their private lives. And the struggle of feminism has often been to acknowledge that the system of beauty is irrevocable and cannot be expunged by protest or discourse or time. To be an educated professional woman in contemporary America is to know that you operate--and often, must operate--within both systems. It's why beautiful and extremely capable women are often valued above their less glamorous or less fit peers--they are triumphs in two systems of value, double-threats.

Harris, like Michelle Obama, is a triumph in the system of beauty as well as the system of power. But President Obama's remark mistook the setting. Just as it's perfectly appropriate to tell a colleague she looks gorgeous when she's dressed to the nines for some black tie work event, it would be inappropriate to refer to her as "gorgeous over there" during a work meeting. Doing so takes her out of the system of power and puts her into the system of beauty in a setting in which power is the value that's brought her to the table. And that, dear readers, is a gaffe.