In the midst of a news month filled with political sex scandals both old and resurrected, you might have missed a bizarre court ruling out of Iowa.
The decision basically said: You can be fired for being too attractive, if you are a lady, because your attractiveness has nothing to do with your gender.
A young woman, Melissa Nelson, working as a dental assistant, was fired by her boss, James Knight, because he and his wife basically saw her as a seductive threat to the sanctity of their marriage. From pretty women to gays, there are so many threats to the sanctity of marriage, isn’t it funny how ego and poor self-management is never listed?
A great column by Michael Kimmel goes over the details of the case, explaining why — as in strict religious societies that demand “modesty” — this decision puts the onus of sexual attraction right on the woman who is its object, absolving the man in question of any self-control or responsibility at all. This plays into a perverse victim-blaming mentality — and as Soraya Chemaly recently noted, there’s been a spate of similar incidents.
After all, the case of Melissa Nelson rests not on her beauty but on Mr. Knight’s perception of her beauty. In his eyes, her beauty was simply too tempting, too potentially injurious. (Ever notice, the writer Timothy Beneke once asked, how the words we use to describe women’s beauty — bombshell, knockout, stunning, femme fatale — are words that connote violence and injury to men?) What a pathetic commentary on Mr. Knight: his willpower so limp, his commitment to his wife so weak, that he must be shielded from the hot and the beautiful.
I would take Kimmel’s argument further. As I noted when I wrote about Barbie, our entire notion of beauty is tied in to other factors. Beauty is an idea that is already predicated on layers of social discrimination and status: those who are thin, able-bodied, white, cisgender, ultra-feminine — every kind of category that is privileged economically is also coincidentally seen as “more beautiful.” And then, as in this case, extra layers of discrimination reduce those deemed attractive to their sexuality.
Everyone loves to make the argument that beauty is subjective: In the days of Peter Paul Rubens, they’ll tell you, fleshiness was seen as lovely. They will mention that “Twilight Zone” episode, “Eye of the Beholder,” in which the pig-faced future race of people sneer at the ugliness of beautiful Hollywood actors. These comments acknowledge that beauty has often had a socially imposed dimension. And yet people like those Iowa judges are lazy in applying it to our existence, and understanding that attractiveness is connected to so much more than surface appeal and symmetry of features.
So yes, employment discrimination on the basis of beauty — either possession or lack of it —amounts to gender discrimination. It also perpetuates victim blaming. And as Kimmel says, it’s deeply sad and pathetic.