Lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney attends the hearing in the case Perincek vs Switzerland, at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, Jan. 28,2015.
Lawyer Amal Alamuddin Clooney attends the hearing in the case Perincek vs Switzerland, at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, France, Jan. 28, 2015.  Sandro Weltin/Council of Europe/EPA

The World's Obsession With Amal Isn't About Her Accomplishments

Jan 30, 2015
Ideas
Charlotte Alter covers politics and society for TIME in New York City.

Amal Clooney is at it again— doing something celebrities don't usually do, and looking like a movie star while doing it.

This time, she's arguing in the European Court of Human Rights against a Turkish politician who denied the existence of an Armenian genocide 100 years ago in which more than 1.5 million people were brutally murdered. That's, like, sooo impressive... but who is she wearing?

When a reporter from The Telegraph asked her, she cheekily replied "Ede and Ravenscroft," the legal robes maker that has been selling drab back judge costumes since 1689, the year Benjamin Franklin's parents met.

Once she did that, the focus shifted from the history of the Armenian genocide to Amal's sense of humor and fashion choices. The global reaction to her comments was proof that jig is up: it's time to stop pretending you care about what Amal Clooney is doing, when you really just care about how she looks while doing it.

The public obsession with Amal Clooney has been outwardly focused on her professional accomplishments, and with good reason. She's represented high-profile clients like Julian Assange and former Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko, fought for the Elgin Marbles to be returned to Greece, and worked to free three Al-Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Egypt. She's done more in the last ten years than many lawyers do over their entire career.

It sounds great, and it is. But the gushing adoration in the media about her work is false appreciation that crumples under scrutiny. How many other human rights lawyers inspire anything close to Amal-mania? Look at Samira al-Nuaimy, the Iraqi human rights lawyer who was executed by ISIS last year. If the tabloid-buying American public so obsessed with human rights, why wasn't she on the cover of InTouch?

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Let's face it: no matter how real Amal's accomplishments are, the breathless celebration of her legal triumphs is just a thinly veiled infatuation with how she looks.

When placed in the glare of celebrity, Clooney's binders of legal documents and folders of case material become accessories to her shiny hair and perfect manicure, instead of the other way around. What's worse, there's something grotesque about using serious work on behalf of genocide victims as a pretense for a fixation on her looks, her clothes, and her marriage to one of the world's most eligible actors.

Amal's beauty is the unspoken end of every sentence about her legal career, the sub-head to every headline about her human rights work. Even if the coverage is ostensibly focused on Turkish politics, or the Elgin marbles, or sexual violence in conflict zones, the substance get inevitably lost in the subliminal hum over what Amal's wearing, how Amal's hair looks, and the fact that Amal is married to George Clooney. It even happens when there's nothing to report—the Armenian genocide case was overshadowed by Amal's non-outfit (she was wearing essentially the same thing as all the other lawyers in the room).

It's also a weird over-correction to the common sexist problem of focusing on women's looks over their careers. Instead of focusing on the looks of an accomplished woman (like Kirsten Gillibrand), the media is loudly proclaiming how not-sexist they are by obsessively trumpeting Amal's professional accomplishments, then mentioning her beauty as a super-conspicuous after-thought.

But discussing Amal Clooney's human rights work in the same tone as Kim Kardashian's workouts or Jennifer Lawrence's pizza cravings isn't just awkward— it's bizarre. Imagine if other human rights activists were treated the same way. Next it'll be "Watch Ban Ki-Moon Go to the Gym Without Makeup" or "Malala's Celebrity Crush: REVEALED!"

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Some celebrities use their existing fame to shine a light on problems in the world, like Amal's husband's best friend's wife Angelina Jolie, who recently wrote an op-ed in the New York Times demanding improved conditions in Syrian refugee camps. But that's a different story, because Jolie came to activism after she got famous. She's getting her picture taken in refugee camps and giving impassioned speeches at the U.N. precisely to direct those who are interested in her hair and clothes towards something more important.

But Amal's just doing her job. Her work isn't celebrity activism or a publicity stunt. Yet when it's put in the context of celebrity fodder, Amal Clooney's work on behalf of marginalized people gets reduced to just another thing a woman does while being beautiful.

So stop gushing. Stop with the headlines that trumpet Amal as a goddess for doing her job. Stop with the shock and awe that someone so beautiful could be so smart as well. Just let Amal keep doing her thing.

Read next: Amal Alamuddin Clooney and the Rise of the Trophy Husband

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