“I bet she treats you well,” says one national leader to another (not accounting for the fact the second man is gay – but hey, who cares about acknowledging his sexuality? Certainly not man number one. But I digress.)
“I bet she treats you well.
It’s a colorful phrase, firing a symphony of insult toward an accomplished professional in a very public moment. A lecherous eye, crook of the finger, and the US president at his desk in the Oval Office, again assured the world we have a long way to go when it comes to gender equality.
RTÉ’s Washington correspondent and US bureau chief Caitríona Perry is clearly no slouch. In the competitive world of journalism, she has been a strong presence with the company for over 10 years, with three clocked up in her current role.
By now, most of the world who are following Donald Trump’s litany of dysfunction have learned about the moment when he clearly bird-dogged Ms Perry as he made a call to congratulate recently-elected Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
While following her with his eyes, the president remarked to the Irish Prime Minister on the members of the beautiful Irish press before him. Then Ms Perry was on the pin. Trump easily rolled out a man-to-man comment that her “nice smile on her face” would mean she likely treated the Taoiseach well. Because he is allergic to media and their insistence of propagating fake news, I can only think treat, for Trump, has another synonym.
In an awkward moment with which only women are likely to empathize, the Irish journalist kept the fixed smile on her face and she backed away after her exchange with Trump.
I read the articles and as I grumbled at Trump’s actions, a male dear to me said it was clearly inappropriate, but to react to the incident more extravagantly was clutching at straws. He did not seem to think it was more than a gaff. It illustrated again the chasm created between men and women.
Because it was not just inappropriate. If it would never happen to a man, then it was far more than inappropriate. It was a slap of humiliation to Ms Perry’s face on a very global stage.
It might be best to lay out my case in bullet points.
Ms Perry had every right to expect, in an interview with a leader of a civilized society which purports to support human rights, a professional audience with the US president. She should not have to ‘gird her loins’ for a moment when she might be caught short. Instead, she was reduced with his compliment. She became in the world’s eyes, even as we railed or empathized, a woman placed at a disadvantage. Wrongly, but still the object of his calculated diminishment. Trump probably did not even know he was doing it, his approach toward women is so entrenched.
Trump singles out Ms Perry and beckons her to approach him with a curled finger, like you might a child, or if you are that kind of person, a ‘subordinate’. On her level, Ms Perry might be the very best at her job, just as one might expect the president to be the best at theirs. They are two different jobs, and each should afford the other a measure of respect. Well, it didn’t happen, though she was graceful in the fire of his insult. His expression of respect was nonexistent.
We must remember, in her competitive field, everything Ms Perry would have done, all the work, the people she would have climbed over, her performance, her obvious knowledge of international affairs, to have been chosen for this placement as US bureau chief, and a woman in our society to represent her network, is a big feat. It’s a career-defining position regardless of gender, and she is an inspiration for young women on the same journey. And then, she is called out by the president, not for the quality of her work, but for her pretty face. In his eyes, that was what she was good for.
Had Ms Perry copped the same comments as an adolescent girl standing in front of the president, nobody would kick around a word like inappropriate. “I bet she treats you well” would have raised very different hackles of disgust. Instead, society has normalized an adult Ms Perry’s sexual objectification. Why is that OK? When do we as women graduate from being people to being females, and why does that even happen? Why do we lose our chance to keep being the girl who wants to be the astronaut, and instead, becomes the female astronaut? And how long will we have to keep celebrating that until we’re all just astronauts?
Lastly, and perhaps at its most basic level, Ms Perry was doing her job, yet put on the spot in front of her colleagues because of how she looked. Whether she was the most stunning woman in the world wearing Chanel, or physically unremarkable in tidy discount store clothing, she was doing her job. To call his compliment inappropriate is an understatement. It just goes to show how far we have to travel before a woman, no matter how she looks, is allowed to do her job in peace.
I must say, I don’t think the odd compliment goes astray. There’s nothing wrong with telling somebody they have a nice smile, or remarking on their new haircut, or how lovely their eyes are, or saying, “That outfit looks great on you”. Casually at work, or between friends and family, or even between strangers, these comments can be kind, and lift a spirit.
But in a professional setting, especially when it is a man delivering such a compliment as in this case with Trump and Ms Perry, they are not. Consciously or not, they are actions to establish control.
As a society, we are all guilty of perpetuating this behavior. It is rarely a man on the receiving end of such compliments at times like that Oval Office moment. Until we change our attitudes, each time we identify a Caitríona Perry experience as just an inappropriate moment, rather than a calculated attempt to put a woman in her place and diminish her, it’s just another brick in the wall between what women could be, and what they should be.
And that is equal.