Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today, do you mind if I say this? You look great. The hair is on point. I love the way that shirt goes with that sweater. And no, that's not the only thing I care about about you, but yes, I do appreciate a good looking whoever you are.

And now that I think about it - whoever you are - it would be great if we could all just admit that how you feel about what I just said, well, it depends. It depends on who you are, what you do and, yes, how badly you need or want that complement.

Of course, I'm talking about the controversy, kerfuffle, whatever you want to call it, but that fundraiser in California recently, where President Obama praised California's Attorney General Kamala Harris as brilliant, dedicated and tough, but then he also went on to say that quote, "she happens to be by far the best looking attorney general in the country," unquote.

Well, unless you lost your smartphone, you know what happened next. How could you miss it? It was the explosion heard around social media world. From the critics: see, what a sexist pig. The White House is a boys club; that's why he doesn't get it. And then there was the criticism of those critics: see, that's what's wrong with feminists, they just want to suck the joy out of life. No sense of humor. Oh, by the way, she is good looking. What's so terrible? What's your problem?

Can I just tell you? This seems to me one of those rare cases where just about everybody is right about something. Here's where the president's critics are right. Talking about a woman's appearance in politics does matter. There is actually some data to support this.

The Democratic pollster Celinda Lake has just published two new surveys that suggest that comments about a woman candidate's appearance, positive or negative, undermines her standing with the voters. They affect whether voters see her as qualified and effective. You can see why that would matter in a close race and that's why advocates for more women in politics gets so annoyed when somebody who is supposed to be an ally gets that wrong.

But here's where the critics of the critics have it right. Nothing is simple when it comes to Barack Obama and the weird cultural dynamics of now. For a lot of black men, like Uptown magazine blogger Charles Ellison, the backlash is yet more, quote, "old-fashioned fear of black man carefully marinated into a broad attempt at making them completely powerless, even if it means surgical snips at any hint of masculine self, " unquote.

If that's a stretch, how come I don't remember anybody criticizing George W. Bush for not inviting any women to go riding dirt bikes on his ranch, like they did Barack Obama when he didn't invite women to play basketball or golf.

For a lot of black women, like Kelly Goff, who blogs at "The Root," this is yet another diversion from issues they care about a lot more but that never get this much airtime. If you think that's a stretch, how can we hear more about New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's proposed Big Gulp ban than we do about the alleged racial profiling by the city's police that's caused some black teens in New York to exhibit signs of PTSD?

And Kelly didn't say this, but I will: Black women in this country are not exactly overburdened by tributes to their beauty unless they look like Halle Berry - and even then that beauty is perilous. Is it any wonder that Berry won her Oscar for a movie in which she has sex with a character played by a decidedly unlovely Billy Bob Thornton? And the next year, she was actually groped on stage by the similarly unlovely Adrien Brody when he collected his Oscar. I may have missed it but where was the feminist outrage then?

In that context you can see why the president might feel it was not only OK, but a good thing to give an accomplished woman of color some brotherly love for being not just tough and strong - black women are always about to be that, aren't they - but also beautiful, and in that context, since she is after all, a politician just like he is, who might actually want his job someday, you can see why he apologized.

It's just too bad the blogosphere has become so much better at venting than listening. It would be nice to be able to talk about how we all want respect, admiration, appreciation and to be desired, but not in equal measure and not all at the same time from the same people. Now that would be a beautiful thing. But no, let's just be mad at each other - good-looking - but mad.

And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and you've been listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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Can I Just Tell You?Can I Just Tell You? NPR's Michel Martin gives a distinct take on news and issues