No, Maureen Dowd Is Not the Same As Obama

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Maureen Dowd wrote Saturday about Hillary Clinton’s presidential ambitions, and, as is her wont, supplies a fashion critique. Dylan Byers seizes the moment to ask why, if feminists got so angry with President Obama for calling Kamala Harris a hottie, shouldn’t they also be angry with Dowd? “Is it Ok or Not Ok when Maureen Dowd does it?”

“It,” as Byers further defines it, means “comment[ing] on the appearance of another woman.” Are these things really pretty much identical? No, they aren’t. For one thing, Obama was commenting on Harris’s general hotness, while Dowd was commenting on Clinton’s specific fashion choices:

Hillary jokes that people regard her hair as totemic, and just so, her new haircut sends a signal of shimmering intention: she has ditched the skinned-back bun that gave her the air of a K.G.B. villainess in a Bond movie and has a sleek new layered cut that looks modern and glamorous.

In a hot pink jacket and black slacks, she leaned in for a 2016 manifesto, telling the blissed-out crowd of women that America cannot truly lead in the world until women here at home are full partners with equal pay and benefits, careers in math and science, and “no limit” on how big girls can dream.

Now, whatever you want to say about this kind of fashion commentary — yes, I think we have way too much of it — she is discussing Clinton’s actions and choices here, not evaluating her in a way that would fit in with a locker room would-you-do-her session.

Second, Dowd is a political commentator, not a president. One could argue that the appearance of female politicians is a reality a commentator can acknowledge and analyze, while the politician can choose to ignore it to help create a different reality. Obama is not technically Harris’s superior — she represents a state, not the federal government. Still, he is, in addition to being the president, essentially the head of the Democratic Party, making him a kind of boss of Harris’s. Obama has an outsize role in the culture and sets an important behavioral example in a way that doesn’t apply to columnists.

Those important differences aside, I will confess to applying a sexual double standard here: Yes, it matters that Dowd is female. Different people can say different things. Whether or not you think it’s bad when black guys call each other nigga, it’s clearly not as bad as when white guys use the term on black guys. In general, certain comments can be more or less appropriate depending on who is saying it and having it said of them. Joking about a friend snatching the last slice of pizza: Probably okay, unless the friend is fat, in which case it’s mean.

I will confess to choosing an overly strong adjective when I called Obama’s initial comments “disgraceful.” (I am so ideologically in tune with Obama that I take care not to pull my punches when the rare opportunity for disagreement presents itself.)

The fact that Obama constantly discusses the attractiveness of male politicians is relevant in establishing his intentions — this is just his mode of back-slapping — but it doesn’t make it the same thing. Being judged on your appearance in the context of a job by men is a threat to women in a way it is not a threat to men. It is also, in particular, a threat to female politicians. Even if Obama was trying to be nice, the effect of his comment was to set back the cause of workplace equality.