Calling someone ‘hot’ isn’t automatically a compliment

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s spokesman — in response to Reid recently referring to New York senator Kirsten Gillibrand as “the hottest member” in the Senate — confirmed and qualified the statement by adding that Reid “also praised Gillibrand for her work,” according to Politico.

As Vanessa from Feministing and other bloggers have pointed out, “of course as long as her work is commended in addition to her ‘hotness,’ publicly objectifying her is A-OK!” But what bothers me in addition to the obvious and misguided thought process of “it’s OK that I called her ‘hot’ in a professional setting because I followed up with attributes actually related to her work in the Senate” is the broader notion that these type of remarks should be appreciated by women and taken as compliments.

I’ve heard more than one person use this as a defense for comments like this. Does Gillibrand feel like Reid paid her a compliment? Well, considering him calling her “the hottest member” of the Senate “prompted Gillibrand to turn red,” it was probably quite embarassing in a professional setting like a fundraiser — where she is surrounded by colleagues, politicians, other important people — to have the Senate majority leader gabbing about how “hot” she is.

But that’s the problem with comments like this, whether they take the form of banter between co-workers or cat-calls to a woman walking on the street — the people who say them often see no harm because, in their minds, they are giving a self-esteem boost. But these types of comments can be both embarassing and dangerous, especially when one takes where or how they are said into consideration.

Say, for instance, that a group of guys starts hollering at a woman walking alone down the street. The guys might think it’s harmless fun, but the woman has no idea of their intentions. She is outnumbered, she is by herself, and these guys are being aggressive — a million possibilities run through one’s mind, wondering if acknowledging them or ignoring them will cause more trouble, if the guys will follow you down the street, etc. In a scenario like this, being told you’re “hot” is like being told you’re a target — not a self-esteem boost.

And some people even think physical harassment is a compliment — someone might think, “Well, me grabbing this woman’s ass is a compliment, it’s me showing that she is physically desirable,” when in reality it is completely inappropriate, uninvited, and not a compliment or self-esteem boost. It’s an invasion of privacy, and a signal that the person doing the grabbing has absolutely no respect for your body, your feelings, or your space. (No one accused Reid of physical harassment.)

The connotation of the spokesperson’s comment was that being called “hot” was on the same level as praising her work professionally, implying that both are compliments and should be taken as such. And I’m sure there are people who will take Reid’s side and say us feminists are just overreacting and should be glad to be called “hot,” but the context is key — not to mention the fact that women’s being praised for their looks before their work ethic is an age-old obstacle that women have long dealt with in the professional world.


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4 Responses to “Calling someone ‘hot’ isn’t automatically a compliment”

  1. Captain Dreamboat Says:

    This comment appears in lieu of the jokey comment I valiantly tried (and ultimately) failed to compose which:

    a) conveyed my genuine agreement with the excellent and legitimate points you make in this post.

    b) included a joke about you being hot for purposes of irony.

    c) was not horrendously creepy.

    So I will simply say ‘well done.’

  2. Captain Dreamboat Says:

    Did you see this gem?

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