Chances are when you’re a Washington Correspondent these days, you’re working as a one-person newsroom, and under fairly fractious conditions to boot. Charlie Bird certainly didn’t have to put up with the ire of a US president simply for doing his job. Call it a hunch, but he was probably never referred to by a US president as having a “beautiful smile” on his face.
For Donald Trump, old habits clearly die hard, and he was in full-blown pageant mode when appraising RTÉ's Washington Correspondent/US Bureau Chief Caitríona Perry at a photocall this week. "I bet she treats you well," he said down the phone to our new Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Now, Trump probably sounds like an oily oik even while saying his nightly prayers, but there was something particularly seamy about the way he singled out Perry, looked her over, and gave her – well, her beautiful smile, anyway – the Trump seal of approval.
It’s not the first time a journalist has been an objectified woman first, and a professional just trying to do her job second.
French tennis player Maxime Hamou was banished from this year's French Open for forcibly, and repeatedly, kissing Eurosport journalist Maly Thomas during an interview. The incident, broadcast live, brought laughter and clapping from the commentators in the studio, but Thomas called the ordeal "frankly unpleasant" and added "if it hadn't been live on air, I would have punched him". Last year, cricketer Chris Gayle asked reporter Mel McLaughlin out on air.
“Your eyes are beautiful, hopefully we can win this game and then we can have a drink after as well. Don’t blush, baby.”
McLaughlin attempted to laugh off the invitation by saying: “I’m not blushing.”
I don’t suppose you’re noticing a commonality yet? Like Caitríona Perry, who smiled sweetly and quietly returned to her seat without reacting, McLaughlin and Hamou reacted in a way that most women do in a similar situation.
Whether it’s the leery uncle at a wedding, the guy in the street telling women to smile or the handsy financial controller at work, women have been programmed to smile nicely and act neutral; to get out of the exchange quickly. Deal with the sting of humiliation or unease on your own time. It’s an impossible corner to get wedged into.
Recoil or react with hostility, call someone out on their sleaze, and things can, and often do, get unpleasant, and fast.
You’re the uptight bitch who can’t take a compliment. You’re the shrew who needs to relax.
You’re the cow who needs to learn a thing or two about being a team player. It may not be right thing to do, but letting casual sexism pass without comment is definitely easier.
But what Caitríona Perry – an able, professional journalist – has had to get used to this week after being singled out by Trump is comments on her ornamental worth. It should come a very distant second to her ability as a professional, but alas it doesn’t. And really, is it any wonder that women – often having to face this massive obstacle before they get noticed for a lick of work they do – don’t run with carefree abandon towards life in the public eye?
While many Twiberals piled in to apologise to Perry on America’s behalf, others couldn’t seem to get past Perry’s physical resemblance to Trump’s daughter Ivanka. Even more intriguing still was the media coverage that followed the incident. One online outlet illustrated the episode with a picture of the journalist on the Oscars red carpet, in a figure-hugging metallic gown.
The thing about these insidious compliments meted out to women by men is that they’re rarely what they seem. There is always a “right” way for a woman to take a compliment. Blogger and author Feminista Jones recently posted the results of an interesting social experiment.
“P**s a man off today,” she wrote. “Tell him you agree with his compliment.”
It’s not the done thing, in other words, to too readily believe those lovely things that a man says about your beautiful smile or knockout body.
“Just say ‘Thank you’; they cry, not knowing what to do after a woman agrees with them,” she wrote. “[but] they even complain when you say ‘thanks’ with a straight face instead of ‘Thank you’ with frilly giggles and fake blushes.”
One male commenter wrote to her: “I wish you were oblivious to the fact that you’re adorable. Obliviousness always feels more innocent than self-awareness.”
There’s an expectation that women don’t demonstrate a sense of self-appreciation, and should be flattered, overjoyed, even, that men notice the attractive stuff. We’re supposed to be hot, but be blithely unaware of it.
She has a point: in these instances, men want to be arbiters of praise. It’s a way of taking control. Their opinion on your looks matters. It’s valid, and deserves to be out in the world. There’s an element of putting someone in her place.
Don’t think for a single second that Trump, or any leery sportsman coming down from a winner’s high for that matter, doesn’t know it.