Girl Talk: Go Ahead, You Can Call Me Ugly

Late last month, Republican firebrand Ann Coulter spoke at Homocon, an event organized by GOProud, an organization of gay conservatives. In her remarks, she tried to convince gays and lesbians in attendance that they shouldn’t want, or have the right, to get married. The week before that, following her victory in the Delaware GOP primary, Christine O’Donnell became a household name (and a political punch line), mostly thanks to her arch-conservative views on sex and masturbation.

More recently, Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi predicted that the U.S. military’s controversial “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy would be dead by the end of this year. And in a few days, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be heading to the Balkans to attend talks between Serbia and Kosovo on Kosovar independence.

Important issues, sure, but let’s not let them distract us from what really matters, people: Are these ladies hot or not?

Seemingly unaware that they were actively proving my point about the value we place on beauty, internet commenters told me to shut my big, ugly mouth.

Despite their political differences, what these four women have in common is that they’ve all been criticized or complimented for their appearances while trying to do their jobs. More specifically, observers have tried to discount the things that these women are saying, the ideas they’re advancing, by talking about their looks instead.

They’re not alone. Most Frisky readers have probably experienced this phenomenon, too. Not long ago, I appeared on an independent TV station to talk about the disturbing emphasis our culture places on being beautiful. I was there to talk about a recent study that found that if you want to get women to stop using tanning beds, it’s more effective to warn them about how tanning can cause wrinkles and age spots than how it can cause deadly skin cancer. In my commentary, I criticized our cultural obsession with beauty and our resulting tendency to prioritize looks over health. It’s a crying cultural shame, I said, that we place such importance on beauty that warnings of future ugliness will move women more than warnings of future melanoma.

Predictably, not long after the video was posted on YouTube, the “shut up, you’re ugly” comments came rolling in.

Seemingly unaware that they were actively proving my point about the value we place on beauty, internet commenters told me to shut my big, ugly mouth.

If I’m honest, it stung a little. But the thing is, I didn’t really mind being called ugly. You can call me ugly if you want to. Because when a woman makes an argument and you dismiss that argument out of hand based on her appearance, you’re not just being sexist and lazy. You’re actually making her job a lot easier.

Earlier this year, the very wise cultural commentator Jay Smooth produced a video entitled “How to Tell Someone They Sound Racist.” When someone does something that might be perceived as racist (and, I would add, sexist, or homophobic, or prejudiced in any other way), Jay observed, it can be tempting to simply yell, “Bigot!” and hope that he or she won’t do that thing ever again. But simply slapping that label on them doesn’t actually address the problem, which is that they did or said something we disagree with. What is helpful, Jay advises, is to talk, in very specific terms, about what they did or what they said, and why that was unacceptable. The most important thing, Jay said, “is to remember the difference between the ‘what they did’ conversation and the ‘what they are’ conversation.”

The “what they did” conversation holds someone accountable for the things that they do or say that you disagree with.  The “what they are” conversation skips all that and dismisses someone without asking them to defend their argument. In other words, it lets them off the hook. It leaves their ideas unexamined and unchallenged. And when those ideas are ones like “there should be even less sex education in schools” or “gay people don’t deserve civil rights,” leaving those ideas unchallenged, that laziness on our part, can be very dangerous indeed.

As Jay Smooth said, “I don’t care about what you are. I care about what you did.” In the case of women like Coulter and O’Donnell, I don’t care if you’re ugly or pretty. I care about your extremely conservative views and your desire to see those ideas turned into public policy. So the next time someone tries to dismiss your ideas by saying that you’re too ugly or too pretty, next time they refuse to think about what you’re saying and focus instead on what you look like when you’re saying it, just remember: They’re being lazy and sexist. 

Next time a commentator says that Christine O’Donnell has a great butt and that Ann Coulter is too hideous to behold, keep in mind: They’re being sexist, and they’re letting those women off easy. And letting them off easy, failing to hold those women accountable for views like “abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape or incest,” is a form of sexism that we simply cannot afford.

Photo: iStockphoto