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Sharp intellect matters; sharp dress does not

It was inevitable that Elena Kagan's physical appearance would become fodder for critics of her nomination to the Supreme Court. The solicitor general, a woman of remarkable professional achievement, is still, after all, a woman. Even in 2010, 50 years after the stultifying Mad Men era, a woman's looks are part of her resume.

Of course, the most distasteful sentiments are coming from the extreme right. Talk radio's Michael Savage said back in April that Kagan "looks like she belongs in a kosher deli," and more recently, even as he was admonishing his listeners not to comment on Kagan's appearance, Savage said he finds her looks "personally grotesque."

A recent tweet from radio host Neal Boortz asked, "Has anyone seen Mike Myers and your new Supreme in the same room at the same time?" comparing Kagan to Shrek, the cartoon ogre character of which Myers is the voice.

Another tweet by Jason Mattera, editor in chief of, read: "Why do Janet Napolitano, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan all look like linebackers for the New York JETS?"

This isn't just rakish sport, it's the politics of personal destruction — the female version. The creepy glee these blowhards and their followers take in such attacks is a way to bring women down a notch. Rather than focus solely on Kagan's career and published views, they snigger over her stocky frame. Which is another way of saying that a woman can attain the highest professional heights through a combination of intellect and hard work, but if she's not date-worthy, she's of less regard — even a joke.

This derision is also a form of shorthand to raise alarms about Kagan's political philosophy. Kagan presents herself professionally, free of any political code. She wears makeup, colorful jackets and modest jewelry. Yet, by harping on the fact that she fails to come across as classically feminine, the right hints that she must be a radical feminist or a lesbian, neither of which Kagan has given any indication of being.

The corollary to this is the Sarah Palin phenomenon — a woman whose great looks have earned her a place as an opinionmaker, despite demonstrable intellectual limits. During her vice presidential campaign, Palin's makeup artist was the highest paid person on her staff, and she famously spent a fortune on clothes. As it turns out, this was exactly the right investment, much more important than schooling Palin on domestic and foreign policy. Somehow her beauty magically transforms the mash of incoherence she spouts into pearls of wisdom for supporters.

A new book talks about this trap for women: The Beauty Bias: The Injustice of Appearance in Life and Law by Deborah Rhode, a law professor at Stanford University, who describes herself as a style-challenged academic. The book is a lament — one we know well — of the unfair double standard women face in a society that glorifies female youth and beauty.

Rhode tells of a "ludicrous experience" of her own as chair of the American Bar Association's Commission on Women in the Profession. Before a big luncheon, the ABA public relations staff felt she didn't measure up looks-wise. They chose her wardrobe and sicced a stylist and makeup artist on her. Rhode doubted that male leaders had to endure similar scrutiny.

What the ABA was signaling is nothing new or surprising. Rhode's credibility that day was less contingent on the professional titles she'd earned through years of toil than on how the audience viscerally responded to her appearance. Unfair? Certainly. Unjust? Yup. But that's the way it is and no new regime of antidiscrimination laws will change it.

Kagan has obviously overcome this kind of challenge in her life. It is comforting to know that any look-ism she faced didn't stop her meteoric rise. Except for crass, snickering frat boys of the political right, most of us are able to see past instant judgments to appreciate the talents of smart, able women. It's a subtle but real advancement: Women know that looks still matter, but they're not everything, not even close.

Sharp intellect matters; sharp dress does not 05/14/10 [Last modified: Friday, May 14, 2010 5:53pm]
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