Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Madame Head of State

It seems that there's something to the fact that a head of state is given a huge amount of respect. But, as I noticed today (and earlier this week at the UN) side comments suggest that it's impossible for people to separate gender from title when that head of state happens to be female. At the Clinton Global Initiative today, President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo was invited to represent her country and talk about green investment in the Philippines. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in an attempt to flatter her, said that she was his only "pin-up" in his office. I have a great amount of respect for Tutu, but this is absurd. But why compare an extremely accomplished woman and the leader of the Philippines to a woman who poses nude for money? Is it because of the "s" in front of the "he"? Women can't ever seem to escape being thought of as sexual objects, even when they are in a role that is totally unrelated to sex.

UPDATE: Apparently I'm wrong. He was referring to the Burmese dissident Aung San Suu Kyi

1 comment:

gary said...

I discovered your blog by following a link from Matthew Yglesias' site, and felt compelled to comment. While I certainly understand the point you made, I have some difficulty with it.

Archbishop Tutu's comment was meant as harmless flattery, but your reaction paints him as yet another in a line of insensitive ogres who, in these modern times, use their gender or verbiage as a weapon to deflate or demean women. If President Macapagal-Arroyo, Chancellor Angela Merkel, or any other woman in a position of power or respect made a similar comment about Archbishop Tutu or, say, Senator Barack Obama, should I be outraged? (And in those cases, would she be guilty of furthering the Mandingo stereotype?) Is it the global history of gender politics that makes the comment offensive then, or the context? It's not as if the Archbishop shouted "Nice cans!" or something similarly vulgar.

Regardless of who the light-hearted comment was directed at, where do we draw the line in public discourse for humor and flattery? Does it matter what the woman's status or role is? Should we afford more respect socially for a diplomat than an administrative professional? Furthermore, is the same commentary somehow forgivable when applied to a brave dissident like Aung San Suu Kyi, as your "update" suggests?

Your statement (inadvertantly, I presume) reinforces a nasty stereotype by implying that a woman who poses naked for money is somehow less fit or less worthy in comparison to a figure such as President Macapagal-Arroyo. It also fails to take into account that nudity is not a requirement for pin-ups and that some of the most revered models, actresses, and celebrities of yesteryear were also considered pin-ups.

I apologize for abusing the Socratic Method here in my reply, but I think that these questions, while admittedly baiting in nature, are nonetheless valid. We cannot discount the sexuality of people for the simple fact that it takes sex to continue our very species. Archibishop Tutu clearly meant no disrespect, and considering that this was the Clinton Global Initiative, he could have said or done anything all that awful in comparison to some of the sordid deeds engaged in by the host.

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