Obama's Boys' Basketball Game

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
Oct. 26 2009 2:52 PM

Obama's Boys' Basketball Game

Emily Bazelon Emily Bazelon

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer at the New York Times Magazine and the author of Sticks and Stones

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Did anyone else read the story about Obama's all-male basketball game against Joanne Lipman's op-ed about how far women have (not) come? And then feel torn about how much to care that the president "presides over a White House rife with fist-bumping young men who call each other 'dude' and testosterone-brimming personalities," as Mark Leibovich vividly put it in the NYT ?

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Lipman's most interesting point is that women have measured their progress in numeric gains rather than by a shift in attitudes. Too much bean counting, not enough concern about Google searches of famous women that lead to lots of entries about her breasts. Or about how women are otherwise physically caricatured.

The questions about Obama's hoops game are about both bean counting and attitude. To worry about the numbers of women in his White House, you have to narrowcast. We're not talking about the number of women in his administration or in leadership roles, but the number in a particular inner circle of hoops players and, until domestic policy advisor Melody Barnes busted in on Sunday, golf players too. These are particular slices of access, and so part of me understands why Obama was so quick to dismiss concerns about a boys' club as "bunk," and to say, "I don’t think it sends any kind of message or signal whatsoever."

But of course it sends a message. This is where the attitude part of Lipman's construct comes in. The original story in Politico about the all-male basketball game didn't move me, because the flap seemed to be over one small self-contained sphere. But Mark does a really good job of showing how basketball and golf spill over. This is about how Obama's "comfort level with staff members is not always perceived as equal." And that is tricky. On the one hand, you can't tell a boss or anyone else who to be totally at ease with. And maybe one reason he's not as comfortable and intimate with his women staffers is his incredibly strong relationship with Michelle. On the other hand, well, he's the president. And if his feelings about sexual politics in the workplace, however nuanced, mean that women aren't as close to him, they won't be as powerful either.

Photograph of Barack Obama by Pete Souza/The White House via Getty Images.