Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Even billionaires put their foot in it

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OTTAWA -- Billionaire Brit Richard Branson apologized Friday to B.C. Premier Christy Clark for suggesting she should ride naked on his back while kite-surfing.

Branson made the comment on his blog May 25 after he met Clark during a visit to Vancouver.

"When in British Columbia a few days ago, the delightful Premier Christy Clark accepted my invite to come for a kitesurf ride on my back," he wrote. "One thing though -- I forgot to tell her about the dress code! Well, here it is."

The post was accompanied by a provocative picture of a naked woman clinging to his back while he's kite- surfing. Branson also tweeted a link to the blog. It was retweeted more than 50 times.

Branson has a reputation for doing and saying outrageous things. This is among them, but that doesn't make it OK. Neither does his apology -- one of those non-apology -- "I'm sorry if you took offence" sort of things.

"Kite-surfing 'check the dress code' comment was a joke. Apologies if anyone took it seriously or thought it in bad taste, no offence meant," he tweeted Friday.

For a man who likes to think of himself as hip, Branson is out of touch. For a man who is clearly so smart about so much, it's simply stunning he could be so stupid about this.

Some say the best way to react would be to ignore it, that to react at all gives Branson the attention he craves.

But how does that help? What does that say to young women who might have seen the comment on Twitter? That it's OK? That it's just a joke?

Does ignoring it ensure young men who may have seen it realize this kind of commentary is not something they should mimic?

Clark responded well. She did not freak out, she just expressed her disappointment.

"I just don't think it's very respectful," she said.

"The thing is, lots of young women, I hope, want to run for politics. I think when you meet with the CEO of a billion-dollar company, who wants to do business with your province, you can get a little more respectful treatment than that."

One might hope a woman such as Clark, who rose through the proverbial glass ceiling of politics to become part of a growing number of female premiers in Canada, would no longer have to be subjected to this kind of thing.

One might hope we might be beyond it when there are now three provinces headed by women, when women are making slow but steady gains getting elected to office and are outnumbering men in almost every university classroom.

In April, Albertans got to witness an election in which the two front-runners for premier were both women. The fact that both Alison Redford and Danielle Smith were women wasn't an issue, because it didn't matter. Which is the way it should be.

Except from Branson's point of view, Danielle Smith and Alison Redford would have been better to duke it out in a mud pool than behind a podium.

And he's unfortunately not entirely alone. Commentary on the physical attributes of politicians is not rare. NDP MP Rathika Sitsabaiesan had been an MP less than five months before online looky-loos wondered why one head shot of her showed cleavage and another version of the same shot had been doctored to remove said cleavage.

It's not entirely unheard of for male politicians to be criticized for their appearance. Prime Minister Stephen Harper's weight has far too often been fodder for discussion. One artist recently chose to paint Harper in the nude as a commentary on his leadership style.

Newly minted NDP Leader Thomas Mulcair's critics think he can't become prime minister because he has a beard.

That doesn't make what Branson said any better. Comments such as Branson's continue the unspoken rule it matters more what you look like than what you do. Ignoring such ignorance is not going to stop it.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 4, 2012 A7

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