President Obama's biggest gaffe yesterday when speaking of California Attorney General Kamala Harris was not in flirtatiously complimenting her as "the best-looking attorney general," but in introducing an observation from the system of beauty into a forum that was about the system of power.
What's that, you say? Irin Carmon does a great job in Salon in laying out the bounds of propriety for when it's appropriate to talk about a woman's looks as a general matter. But I've long felt we lack a solid theoretical underpinning for easily discussing these issues, and why precisely it is that admiring and complimenting women for the beauty they work so hard to maintain–and let's be clear, nobody looks like Harris at her age (48) without effort and without herself valuing beauty and fitness, which are achievements as much or more than naturally occurring properties–can sometimes be inappropriate.
It seems to me–and I touched on this a bit a 2009 Slate piece–that a simple distinction between the two worlds in which women today operate can help us think about this: They are the system of beauty, and the system of power.