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Men Ask the Important Questions: Is Hillary Hot Enough, or Too Hot, to be President?

Much has been said over the past few weeks – and rightly so – about the near-universal female experience of being preyed upon by men. What we hear a bit less about is the other version of what is, in either incarnation, a misogynist power move: men announcing that women are unattractive, as a way of dismissing what these women have to say.

Reading a NSFW but pertinent tweet on this topic, by journalist Erin Gloria Ryan, I was reminded of a comment left on a recent post of mine here, which, rather than disagreeing with an opinion I’d expressed, jumped straight into a portrait of me – a person allergic to cats, no less! – as a cat lady who’d never caught a man’s attention.

What do you even do with something like this, when some dude on the Internet (inevitably speaking as the self-appointed representative of all-the-men) has declared you not worthy of his (entirely not-asked-for) attentions? Ryan’s comeback (reminding dude she doesn’t care how he feels about her in that way) seems right, and frankly so does publicizing the fact that women who express opinions, who act in the world, deal with this.

As for how to react emotionally, when a debate about a particular topic gets derailed into one about whether a man finds you attractive – that’s its own question. Because there’s labor in this – it’s exhausting to be told you’re unattractive, even by an online pseudonym, just as it’s exhausting to show up to what you believe to be an interview or other professional meeting and find out that dude thinks you’re on a date, because why on earth else would anyone ever want to interact with a woman?

There’s remarkably little relationship between which women get a ‘you’re so ugly, you don’t matter’ and which get an unsolicited ‘I’d hit that.’ This is most easily demonstrated by the fact that the same women get both sorts of criticism. I won’t say ‘we all do’ because nothing’s universal but… we kind of all do, actually. It’s not that beautiful women get the former, ugly ones the latter. Looks are subjective; most men and women are within normal limits; there are online forums critiquing the looks of the world’s most famously gorgeous models and actresses; but more to the point, this isn’t actually about looks. It’s about power. It’s about reducing women to our sex appeal or lack thereof. It’s about tuning out anything else about a woman that isn’t her sex appeal to one man or men generally. A beautiful woman gets dismissed as an airhead, a plain-looking one as irrelevant; the vast majority of us, falling somewhere between those two extremes, enjoy the honor of getting both of those treatments.

I will now spell out what was only between the lines above: This is what Hillary Clinton has to contend with. First, consider her opponent, who not only enjoys calling women ugly, but who also appears to believe that Clinton having been cheated on makes her somehow less qualified to be president.

Then take a look at the ongoing conversation in the Orthodox press about whether it’s OK to publish an image of Hillary Clinton, even though she’s a woman, and according to some interpretations, Judaism forbids such images. And why would it be a problem, according to Jewish law, to put a picture of Hillary Clinton on the cover of a magazine? Because of a prohibition on… “ogling.” Hillary Clinton has to deal not just with a mainstream press that can never quite get past the fact that she isn’t a nubile 20-year-old, but also with a religious press where she is, in effect, categorized as such.

So this is Clinton’s problem, and every woman’s problem: What matters to the world all too often isn’t what we say or do, but whether The Men are aroused by our presence. And that’s what sexism is – not the unchecked lust, not the ‘you’re hideous’ as a proxy for ‘you’re wrong.’ It’s the reduction of women, all women, of all ages and all levels of physical attractiveness, to objects.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy edits the Sisterhood, and can be reached at bovy@forward.com. Her book, The Perils of “Privilege”, will be published by St. Martin’s Press in March 2017.

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