So last week, President Obama delivered an inappropriate compliment to California Attorney General Kamala Harris — inappropriate not because it was insulting or prurient but because, well, it concerned her appearance, and they were at a political event, and that’s not the place you talk about a woman’s appearance. He said:
She’s brilliant and she’s dedicated, she’s tough. She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general. … It’s true! C’mon.
See? “Best-looking” is generally not the kind of thing that would ruin someone’s day in a personal setting. But this was a professional setting, so commenting on her looks — even in a complimentary way — was inappropriate. And yes, Obama also frequently throws appearance-based compliments out to men — Shaun Donovan, Ken Salazar, Ray Maybus, and the Pittsburgh Penguins have all been “good-looking men.” But a) that doesn’t mean it was appropriate for him to say about men, either, and b) a looks-based compliment to someone who is consistently judged for his accomplishments is different from a similar compliment to someone who is consistently judged for her appearance, accomplishments notwithstanding. And hey, Obama knew he did something wrong; he got called out on it, and he apologized for it.
But some people don’t like to hear important men apologize for stuff. These frequently are men who like to do the stuff the important man just apologized for, because the man’s apparent endorsement of the stuff made it seem okay, but now that the important guy is apologizing for it, it’s an indication that no, the stuff is not okay after all. At Jezebel, Lindy West responds to Washington Times columnist Jack Engelhard, who is pissed that Obama apologized because just for a moment, just for one shining moment, it seemed okay for Engelhard to do any damn thing he wanted without taking any time out to consider the feelings of women. And then that rug was snatched right out from under him! Thanks, Obama!
We were taught (most of us were) that girls and women were to be given flowers for their beauty and character and good looks.
Exactly what is wrong with this?
But one morning we were told that it is okay, even required, to tell a woman that she looks marvelous. Next morning, hey, we can go to jail for this!
(To jail, people! To jail. So unfair.) Or, to paraphrase commenters on this very blog whenever the subject comes up, “BUT WHY CAN’T I COMPLIMENT A WOMAN YOU’RE SAYING I CAN’T EVER COMPLIMENT A WOMAN EVER AND SOME WOMEN GET MAD AND THROW THINGS IF YOU DON’T HIT ON THEM AND FINE, I’LL JUST NEVER GIVE A WOMAN A COMPLIMENT EVER EVER AGAIN SO THERE.”
Luckily, West provides for us a handy list of times when it’s appropriate to compliment a woman so you don’t have to go to jail over it.
1. Literally any time!
Yay! I bet this is easier than you thought. Here’s the thing. Do you have a reason to compliment the woman in question? Wait. Let me rephrase that. Do you have a reason to compliment her that doesn’t have anything to do with your penis? If you’re in a professional setting (like, say, you’re the fucking President publicly addressing a colleague), you are welcome to compliment women on anything with actual relevance to that woman’s professional life. For instance, if you work in an office and a woman from IT fixes your computer, you may officially go nuts complimenting her computer-fixing skills! It is not appropriate, however, to compliment her on her boobs. Unless she fixed your computer with her boobs, in which case, loophole! Ka-ching.
If you are friends with a woman in your office, you two are hanging out in the break room, and you notice that she’s gotten a fetching new haircut, it’s completely normal to say, “Hey, Cheryl, righteous haircut.” But, say, if you are in the middle of a meeting, and Cheryl has just presented her quarterly report to the board, it is not appropriate to raise your hand and say, “I’d just like to point out the flattering way in which Cheryl’s blazer nips in at the waist.” Can you see the difference? One is giving a high-five to a friend in a relaxed, unprofessional setting. The other is derailing and devaluing a colleague’s professional contributions; drawing attention to the fact that she’s a woman in the board room, not a person in the board room; and reminding her that her primary utility, in your eyes, is as a decorative and/or sexual object.
2. If a woman is making eye contact with you in a public social space such as a bar or discotheque.
Sometimes women are totally trynna bone. Sometimes women go out looking for compliments. Sometimes those women would like to receive compliments from you! If a woman is out and about, smiling and making eye contact with strangers and generally looking great, it is perfectly fine to tell her she looks great. If you compliment her and she responds with negative signals — frowning, looking away, smiling uncomfortably, grunting monosyllabically — your compliment was not well-received and you should move on with your life.
You interact with men on a daily basis, right? Can you tell when a man doesn’t want to talk to you anymore? Here is a tip: Women are people, just like men! So just take the understanding of social cues that you use on men (the default humans, I know) and then apply it to your interactions with women.
6. Are we dating? In love? Friends? Are you my hairdresser? Did I just ask you how I look in this hat? Do you have an established track record of respecting me as a human being? Are we in the middle of having sex?
GO FUCKING NUTS.
8. This isn’t a game.
This entire premise is flawed. The idea isn’t to identify some specific set of “rules” so that you can get away with as much as possible. The idea is to interact respectfully with women and treat them like human beings. You don’t need to learn the rules, you need to change your ridiculous dinosaur brain.
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