A debate sparked by a recent interaction between US President Donald Trump (will we ever get used to the ignominy of that phrase?) and reporter Catriona Perry illustrates exactly what happens so often in cases of non-violent sexism: the propensity of people to downplay the incident, call it a mistake or a compliment or refer to the backlash as an over-reaction.
Perry was in the Oval Office to cover a diplomatic phone call between Trump and Irish Prime Minister Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Varadkar’s been in the news lately for being Ireland’s first Indian-origin, gay Prime Minister. Anyway, while she was trying to do her work, Trump interrupted the call to compliment Perry’s smile.
There’s a frequent debate around this in the West: men telling women to smile as a sort of compliment, when it really just reinforces their belief that women in public spaces are meant to look and behave a certain way, and that’s the way that men find pleasing and attractive. While most men defend the action saying it’s meant to be a cheery compliment or an uplifting greeting, women like Soraya Chemaly have pegged “smile, baby” to be the words that no woman wants to hear.
The exchange between Trump and Perry has been retweeted on social media over 8000 times at the time of writing, and some people have labelled Trump a “creeper”, stressing that it was a professional setting, while others say that it was an innocent compliment.
The thing is, statements and compliments like these never exist in a vacuum: the gender and power of the person speaking, and of the person being spoken to, the setting and the cultural baggage that come with these statements do count for something, and it’s something that Trump missed entirely in this exchange.