As comedian and actress Sarah Silverman once put it, “if you are a woman and you don’t want to get married, you are ‘crazy.’ If you are a man and you don’t want to get married, you are George Clooney.” Though the innuendo of this statement still rings true, Silverman will need to swap George Clooney out for a different public figure adamant about not wanting to wed, should she tell that joke again. Earlier this year, after claiming for a long time that he would never get married again following a divorce from his first wife, Clooney got married to an accomplished human rights attorney, Amal Alamuddin (who has since changed her name to Amal Clooney). If you’ve heard anything about Amal lately, it might be because she was recently named the “Most Fascinating Person of 2014” by television journalist Barbara Walters, who since 1993 has compiled a list of the 10 “most fascinating” people of the year. However, the way in which she explained her thinking behind choosing Amal has sparked widespread criticism for its blatantly sexist nature. Amal is an independently impressive woman, yet Walters primarily focused on the fact that she married George Clooney as reason enough to consider her “fascinating.” A few words into her commentary, she posed the question, “what does it take to fascinate one of the world’s most fascinating men?” indicating clearly that her description of Amal, and why she finds her interesting, would be rooted in the fact that she married Clooney, and implying that even when considered among all of Amal’s other achievements, marrying an “unattainable man” is the first thing we should think of when we ask ourselves why one might consider her “fascinating.” I honestly felt like it was the 1950s while I was listening to Walters explain her choice and speak about Amal, but the sad truth is that this sort of sexism, whether it is overt or subtle, is still widespread. It is difficult to imagine a world in which men are known because of, or defined by, the women they marry, or to imagine a man being deemed “fascinating” because of the individual whom he married. It is for that reason that Barbara Walters’ commentary was so poorly received and came off as both outdated and insulting. It is safe to say that she was coming from an innocent place, in her mind, and did not mean to intentionally offend anyone, but her words were problematic not only because she spoke in an insulting manner about one woman, but because her mindset in this instance has the potential to stifle progress for all women.
It is important that I explain myself when I say that Amal is, independently from her husband, an impressive woman. She attended Oxford, received a law degree from NYU, clerked for a federal judge, and went on to act as an attorney for clients such as Julian Assange and the former prime minister of Ukraine. She has also worked as an advisor for Kofi Annan, and within the UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon (among many other accolades to her name). Walters did touch upon some of these accomplishments, but it was as if they were an afterthought, achievements which paled in comparison to marrying a man once determined to remain a bachelor. It is safe to say that when a man’s noteworthy career is discussed, it’s not usually done in a way that presents it as a secondary achievement to getting married. The fact that this is often done when it comes to women is clear evidence that sexism is alive and well. Walters said that now, because of her husband, everything Amal “does, says, or wears” is fascinating. It is laughable to even imagine Walters, or anyone, saying that about a man. For starters, men are rarely scrutinized, criticized, or deemed “fascinating” because of what they are wearing, as women all too often are. Furthermore, it’s not very common for us to consider a man interesting only after or because of the fact that he is married. Walters made it sound as if getting married was a requirement for Amal before the public could take an interest in what she does or has to say. Though it would be an exaggeration to say that we always talk about women in these terms or discuss taking an interest in them in this manner, it seems that it would strike many people as more surprising, or odd seeming, if someone implied that a man is newly considered “fascinating” because of his romantic relationship with someone else. However, when accomplished women are spoken about in the media and elsewhere, it is very often the case that their husbands or boyfriends are brought into the conversation, and sometimes this is done innocently with mild implications, and other times, Walters’ commentary being a prime example, it is insulting.
Later on in Walters’ discussion of Amal (or what could almost be called her discussion of George Clooney), she says that she is “even more perfect when she speaks,” leading a viewer to believe that maybe, just maybe, a little more mind would be paid to Amal’s intelligence. The next 30 seconds or so started off on a promising note, featuring Amal discussing important issues in important seeming settings, but then ultimately ended with her saying, “It’s up to my husband, whatever charities he wants to support.” Of course, even when attempting to illustrate Amal’s eloquence, Walters chose to end it on a “good wife” note. This was insulting in many ways, but especially because if a man’s intelligence were being featured, it probably wouldn’t have ended with something like, “I just hope to please my wife.” A man doesn’t have to let his wife “wear the pants” in a relationship to be considered worthy of respect. We don’t always think of women in these terms either, but it is so much more common for the media to praise or at least express approval of women who play a sort of subservient role in their relationship. This would not be the case for men, and frankly it is damaging to both sexes. Amal isn’t “fascinating” because she married an “unattainable” man; she is fascinating because of what she accomplished prior to doing so, and this is true whether she does or does not plan on maintaining traditional gender roles in her marriage.
The thought-provoking but sad thing about Walters’ commentary of Amal is that it contained traces of both obvious and subtle sexism. It is important that if we are going to weed out and talk about both, we learn to think about how a reversing of men and women in certain scenarios would be perceived (this is especially true for people who legitimately and ridiculously believe that sexism doesn’t exist anymore). If a man were named the “Most Fascinating Person of 2014,” it would not be because of the woman he married. It is important, then, that individuals like Barbara Walters embrace and promote the idea that all women, like men, have the potential to be independently remarkable, complex, and “fascinating”- with or without a ring on their finger.