To read the news reports, one would think the world was crawling with sexist public figures. Arguably the most powerful man in the world, the American President, Barack Obama, is ‘sexist’. The Oscar host, comedian Seth MacFarlane, is ‘sexist’. Veteran American sports caster, 73-year-old Brent Musburger, is ‘sexist’. In a world that is placing increasing emphasis on political correctness, it appears no one can get away with a light remark.
Obama’s reference to his friend and attorney general Kamala Harris’ looks has been written about across the world over the last few days.
Let’s look at the remark in context. What Obama said was: “She’s brilliant and she’s dedicated, she’s tough. She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general in the country.” As the crowd tittered, he added, “It’s true. Come on.”
The ability to inject humour into a serious speech is a popular device in oratory, and we all know Obama is an excellent orator. There are few good orators who don’t throw in a provocative remark every now and again. In such a case, we should perhaps look at the intent, rather than the wording.
First of all, Obama made it a point to praise Harris’ intellect, professionalism and dependability before he made a comment on her looks. Secondly, do we really believe Obama meant to disrespect her? That would be tantamount to saying that, when Obama thanks his “beautiful wife” Michelle Obama in his speeches, he means she’s simply arm candy. The remark about Harris was clearly intended in lighter vein.
The fallout of that was furore in the press and across political lines. The White House Press Secretary, Jay Carney, announced that Obama had called the attorney general to apologise for his remarks, as well as the “distraction” it had caused her. Carney added that the President did not want “in any way to diminish the attorney general's profession, accomplishments and her capabilities” and that Obama “fully recognises the challenges women continue to face in the workplace and that they should not be judged based on appearance”.
Harris herself announced through a spokeswoman that she would not comment on the issue.
ESPN’s veteran commentator Brent Musburger found himself on the wrong side of the press in January, when he made a remark about Alabama beauty queen Katherine Webb, who is dating a University of Alabama quarterback.
His remark, which has been called “creepy” and “extraordinarily inappropriate” in the press, was this – he told his co-commentator, a former quarterback, “You quarterbacks, you get all the good-looking women. What a beautiful woman.” Ironically, Webb is a model whose beauty is her greatest asset. Even so, ESPN issued an apology and said the septuagenarian “went too far”.
While some feminists – and even non-feminists – believe a woman’s looks should not be given any importance, can any of us deny the stab of jealousy we feel when we come across women whom we believe are prettier than we are? Can any of us deny feeling flattered when we’re complimented on our features? Can heterosexual men deny that they are tempted to stare at pretty women?
And, yet, some of the most successful women in the world, the highest-paid among us, clearly did not climb the corporate ladder using their looks.
Then, there’s the other side of the argument. While we can’t help our looks much – the credit going either to good genes or good plastic surgeons – is it unfair to use what we have to our advantage? Is it unfair for this to be pointed out?
This last point is not restricted to women alone. There are plenty of men – including Obama himself – whose appearance is widely spoken of. John F Kennedy is another example of a powerful man who was so popular with women that some would swoon at his rallies. There are plenty of men I have teased about their good looks, and I would be surprised if they accused me of sexism.
Somewhat different from these two instances is the case of Seth MacFarlane, whose hosting of the Oscars drew flak for racism, homophobia and anti-Semitism along with sexism.
Now, did we really expect MacFarlane to be politically correct? This is the man behind Family Guy. We knew he was going to say plenty that would offend the politically correct viewers of the award ceremony. I found the Lincoln remark funny, as I did the dig at George Clooney about his fetish for younger women – though some saw it as an inappropriate remark about 9-year-old Quvenzhane Wallis (MacFarlane said “To give you an idea of how young she is, it’ll be 16 years until she's too old for Clooney”). I even found the Boob Song funny. Because MacFarlane was hired to make ‘inappropriate’ observations. In his own mocking words, “Oh no, that’s what we were afraid he would do”.
Producer Cathy Schulman and actress Jamie Lee Curtis are among those who have come down heavily on MacFarlane. Schulman said nudity is a difficult issue for actresses, and said the performances spoken of in the song were “wrenching and moving in many ways.”
In a column for Huffington Post, Curtis said: “I am an actress who has bared her breasts in films to satisfy the requirement of the role I was asked to do – lucky to do, for in my case, those films were significant in my career. I didn’t like doing it. I didn’t ask if I could do them topless. I did what was asked of me for the part I was playing. Mostly asked by men.”
Her rather self-contradictory assertion does hint that women in the film industry face a degree of exploitation. While I’m not a prudish viewer, my own opinion is that nudity in film is aimed at titillation. When a script does “demand” a sex scene, can it not be shown in shadow play? Even kissing isn’t strictly necessary in films, and actors are making a choice in agreeing to those scenes. While we’ve got over the botanical imagery, it is possible to stage kisses, and Indian stage plays do so very often.
The political correctness that is generally expected of people, and the ‘-ism’s they are accused of when they cross that boundary could lead to the paralysis of free speech. While it may not be okay to say everything that crosses one’s mind, even for the sake of a good quip, we need to be a little more lax about those boundaries. Surely, intent should outweigh the connotations?
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The author is a writer based in Chennai.
She blogs at http://disbursedmeditations.blogspot.com