Skip to main content

Obama comment sexist? I call it a compliment

By Roxanne Jones, Special to CNN
updated 6:45 PM EDT, Fri April 5, 2013
Roxanne Jones says the president's comments about Kamala Harris should be taken in context.
Roxanne Jones says the president's comments about Kamala Harris should be taken in context.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Roxanne Jones: Obama taking huge heat from comment that California AG is good looking
  • Jones: Comment came after praise for accomplishments and was not sexist
  • She says a comment in that context is a compliment; women should know the difference
  • Jones: President is known for including women's issues in his agenda

Editor's note: Roxanne Jones is a founding editor of ESPN The Magazine and a former vice president at ESPN. She is a national lecturer on sports, entertainment and women's topics and a recipient of the 2010 Woman of the Year award from Women in Sports and Events. She is the co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete," (Random House) and CEO of Push Media Strategies.

(CNN) -- "Thank you, Mr. President, you're not such a bad-looking guy yourself."

That would have been my response if I were California Attorney General Kamala Harris, who finds herself in the middle of a media dustup after President Obama introduced her as: "by far the best-looking attorney general in the country," at a fundraiser earlier this week.

Harris is a beautiful woman. She's also super intelligent and accomplished, which the president also noted. In fact, he lauded her professional merits first. So, I say take the compliment and move on. Or, if you're slightly embarrassed by the comment, give it back and move on.

Roxanne Jones
Roxanne Jones

President Obama's observation is not a major offense to women around the globe. Ridiculous flaps such as this one have always made me uncomfortable with calling myself a feminist, especially if that means I have to fly into a fit each time a man makes an awkward comment about a woman.

These were the president's exact words, according to a White House transcript from the fundraiser:

"You have to be careful to, first of all, say she is brilliant and she is dedicated and she is tough, and she is exactly what you'd want in anybody who is administering the law, and making sure that everybody is getting a fair shake. She also happens to be by far the best-looking attorney general in the country — Kamala Harris is here. (Applause.) It's true. Come on. (Laughter.) And she is a great friend and has just been a great supporter for many, many years."

Opinion: Obama's 'best-looking' remark was sexist

Clearly, the president realized in hindsight that his comment didn't go over very well, and he has apologized. But I don't believe an apology was necessary.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It's impossible to believe that anyone could seriously call President Obama a chauvinist over this banter between friends. No matter your politics, you will have a hard time finding a president who has included women more in his agenda. What has he done for us lately? Let me recall just a few things:

- Appointed two female Supreme Court justices, Elena Kagan and Sonia Sotomayor.

Obama comments sexist or complimentary?
Getting to Know: Kamala Harris

- Appointed Hillary Clinton as secretary of state.

- Signed the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act, which restored worker protections against pay discrimination. The bill had failed in the Senate in 2007.

I have disagreed with the president at times, but if POTUS is sexist, then we need more men just like him; the world would be a much better place for women. In my book, when a person -- man or woman -- acknowledges someone's intellect and professionalism and then gives a lighthearted nod to her beauty, it's not sexist. It's just a compliment.

Throughout my career, I've had to learn how to deal with men, and a few women, who made it a point to always comment on my looks, or tell jokes about women working in sports. Early in my career, I admit, I was uncomfortable and wondered how to best handle the situation, not easy when you are many times the only woman in the newsroom. But even when I started out, I realized that context is everything, especially in the workplace, when talking about women and harassment.

Here's an example: One night, while I was working late in the office editing on deadline, a male co-worker stumbled into my cubicle in a drunken stupor, he slung himself on my desk and leaned into me, slurring: "Roxanne, you're so beautiful. Seriously, I've been watching you. ... Why don't you pay attention to me?"

Now, that was creepy. And clearly it was sexual harassment. My bosses and the human resources department quickly dealt with the guy. In fact, his behavior was reported by a male colleague, who witnessed the entire thing, before I could even make the call.

On another occasion, a senior executive speaking at an employee "town hall" meeting at work, pointed me out for a professional accomplishment, and then added: "Hey, Roxanne looks like that woman on the show, 'The Next Top Model.' " There was some laughter in the room but most of the women froze. I did not. I laughed and said: "Thanks, I'm glad you like my new hairdo."

Sure, I knew immediately that the comment was a little awkward. But I was in no way offended. And I did not want the executive, who had always been a champion for women in the workplace, to get any backlash for his comment. He didn't deserve the criticism.

Honestly, when he made that comment I was more worried that my female colleagues would be angry with me. Women might not want to admit this but we often hate women who look good, are smart and successful. Just think: Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook COO, or Marissa Meyer, Yahoo! CEO. Maybe we've been conditioned to believe the stereotypes. But none of us will achieve true equality in the workplace until we end this animus toward one another and focus on how to truly achieve power.

Luckily, sometimes life isn't serious. Sometimes, we can laugh at ourselves and know that not every man is out to hold us down. And if we women are indeed confident in our abilities and our appearance -- no matter how we look on the outside -- then we should stop cowering every time a man notices us and makes a comment.

Stand up strong and take the compliment, but just make sure you're handling your business, because beauty is nothing without brains to match.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter.

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Roxanne Jones.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 9:42 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
Conservatives know easing the trade embargo with Cuba is good for America. They should just admit it, says Fareed Zakaria.
updated 8:12 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
We're a world away from Pakistan in geography, but not in sentiment, writes Donna Brazile.
updated 12:09 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
How about a world where we have murderers but no murders? The police still chase down criminals who commit murder, we have trials and justice is handed out...but no one dies.
updated 6:45 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
The U.S. must respond to North Korea's alleged hacking of Sony, says Christian Whiton. Failing to do so will only embolden it.
updated 4:34 PM EST, Fri December 19, 2014
President Obama has been flexing his executive muscles lately despite Democrat's losses, writes Gloria Borger
updated 2:51 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Jeff Yang says the film industry's surrender will have lasting implications.
updated 4:13 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Newt Gingrich: No one should underestimate the historic importance of the collapse of American defenses in the Sony Pictures attack.
updated 7:55 AM EST, Wed December 10, 2014
Dean Obeidallah asks how the genuine Stephen Colbert will do, compared to "Stephen Colbert"
updated 12:34 PM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Some GOP politicians want drug tests for welfare recipients; Eric Liu says bailed-out execs should get equal treatment
updated 8:42 AM EST, Thu December 18, 2014
Louis Perez: Obama introduced a long-absent element of lucidity into U.S. policy on Cuba.
updated 12:40 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
The slaughter of more than 130 children by the Pakistani Taliban may prove as pivotal to Pakistan's security policy as the 9/11 attacks were for the U.S., says Peter Bergen.
updated 11:00 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
The Internet is an online extension of our own neighborhoods. It's time for us to take their protection just as seriously, says Arun Vishwanath.
updated 4:54 PM EST, Tue December 16, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says we must speak out for the right of children to education -- and peace
updated 5:23 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Russia's economic woes just seem to be getting worse. How will President Vladimir Putin respond? Frida Ghitis gives her take.
updated 1:39 AM EST, Wed December 17, 2014
Australia has generally seen itself as detached from the threat of terrorism. The hostage incident this week may change that, writes Max Barry.
updated 3:20 PM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Thomas Maier says the trove of letters the Kennedy family has tried to guard from public view gives insight into the Kennedy legacy and the history of era.
updated 9:56 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Will Congress reform the CIA? It's probably best not to expect much from Washington. This is not the 1970s, and the chances for substantive reform are not good.
updated 4:01 PM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
From superstorms to droughts, not a week goes by without a major disruption somewhere in the U.S. But with the right planning, natural disasters don't have to be devastating.
updated 9:53 AM EST, Mon December 15, 2014
Would you rather be sexy or smart? Carol Costello says she hates this dumb question.
updated 5:53 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
A story about Pope Francis allegedly saying animals can go to heaven went viral late last week. The problem is that it wasn't true. Heidi Schlumpf looks at the discussion.
updated 10:50 AM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
Democratic leaders should wake up to the reality that the party's path to electoral power runs through the streets, where part of the party's base has been marching for months, says Errol Louis
updated 4:23 PM EST, Sat December 13, 2014
David Gergen: John Brennan deserves a national salute for his efforts to put the report about the CIA in perspective
updated 9:26 AM EST, Fri December 12, 2014
Anwar Sanders says that in some ways, cops and protesters are on the same side
updated 9:39 AM EST, Thu December 11, 2014
A view by Samir Naji, a Yemeni who was accused of serving in Osama bin Laden's security detail and imprisoned for nearly 13 years without charge in Guantanamo Bay
updated 12:38 PM EST, Sun December 14, 2014
S.E. Cupp asks: How much reality do you really want in your escapist TV fare?
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT