Sunday, January 20, 2019

Is it OK to say President Garfield was cute?


Is it OK to talk about people's looks when it has nothing to do with their job or anything else? Or is it naïve, even overly PC, to complain about “lookism”? 

A recent episode of NPR’s Planet Money (transcript here) has two female co-hosts making comments on the attractiveness of 19th century former presidents. I can’t help but feel that if male hosts talked similarly about the looks of, say, the Suffragettes, people would rightfully be angry.

Here is the dialog: 
[Heather Cox] RICHARDSON [a professor of American history at Boston College]: James A. Garfield from Ohio. You know, a Civil War veteran.
 [Sarah] GONZALEZ: Is Garfield the one with the nice blue eyes that you keep mentioning?
 RICHARDSON: Yes, exactly.
 GONZALEZ: Oh, I can see the eyes. Yeah. I can see that.
 RICHARDSON: (Laughter) See?
 [Ailsa] CHANG: Wait, I want to see what he looks like.
 GONZALEZ: All right, let's Google him. OK, look at this. OK, but, like, if you had to choose a cute president from the late 19th century.
 CHANG: I don't think he would be the one.
 GONZALEZ: All right. Fine. James A. Garfield, to me, takes the 19th century cake, but whatever.
 This was in the program itself. Then, after the credits, where podcasts often add humorous bits of dialog that ended up on the cutting room floor (metaphorically, of course), they added: 
CHANG: I would go for Franklin Pierce.
 GONZALEZ: I don't even know who that guy is. That doesn't even stand out as a president to me.
 CHANG: Google. Google. Tall, dark and handsome.
 GONZALEZ: That is not dark.
 CHANG: (Laughter).
 GONZALEZ: Dark doesn't happen till...
 CHANG: 2008.
 GONZALEZ: ...2008.
 (LAUGHTER)
Ha ha.

I’m puzzled that the hosts and NPR editors think this kind of frivolous commentary is acceptable. Men making similar comments about women’s looks would immediately raise red flags. It might happen in private, but would surely not be put on the air. Given the history of how suffragettes were portrayed as ugly and unwanted, people are rightfully sensitive about commenting on women's looks. And it is also a fact that journalists and pundits comment on female politicians’ looks and clothes in ways they would never do for men (see here).

 On the other hand, there is a kind of egalitarianism here in that we have women talking about the appearance of powerful men, a reversal of powerful men talking about women's looks. But are we not supposed to be getting beyond this focus on appearance?

At the same time, sometimes people’s appearance is relevant to a discussion, and we cannot make it taboo, pretending that we don’t notice looks, or that it is too sensitive to talk about. No one can deny that good looks generally help in one’s career.

Still, the frivolity of these comments offends me. Who looks at pictures of presidents from the 19th century to see if they are “cute”? Seems weird.

This is the kind of double-standard that annoys people on the Right. Some people are quick to criticize men for commenting on women’s appearance, and here we have women gabbing about men’s appearance in a way that would be unacceptable if the genders were reversed. Without being too prudish or PC, the journalists should have had the good sense not to include this as part of their podcast. It was not funny, really.

Actually, it was offensive. Just as it is when men comment on women’s looks when it is irrelevant.

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