Garance Franke-Ruta at Slate:
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.
Definition of GAFFE
1: a social or diplomatic blunder
2: a noticeable mistake
Actually, I’m surprised they even called it a gaffe. But inconsistency seems to be a hallmark of modern feminism. Maybe it always was.
The women in this country spend billions of dollars every year on clothes, shoes, make up hair and medical treatments designed to make them look good. But us men aren’t supposed to notice (let alone comment on) their appearance. Unless they want us to. But if we misread some signals it is OUR fault.
Kate Upton makes a lot of money posing in little bits of fabric. If men look at her pictures then they are pigs But God forbid we should express disapproval because that would be slut-shaming. But if some high school kid decides to invite her to his prom that is practically rape.
Apparently the only hard and fast rule of modern feminism is “Men are bad.” Unless that man is Obama.