Caitlin McBride: Caitriona Perry isn't a celebrity who wants to be objectified, she's a journalist trying to do her job
What should have been a memorable moment in Perry’s career has turned into a circus of objectification by the international media
There's an old adage in journalism: never become the story.
Yet RTE’s Washington correspondent Caitriona Perry finds herself in the precarious position of being the focus of news coverage through no design of her own.
You see, Perry made the criminal mistake of being an attractive woman in the company of US President Donald Trump.
On Tuesday, while Trump called Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to congratulate him on his victory over Simon Coveney – because what else does Trump like to talk about but his “tremendous” victory in the November election? – he welcomed a pool reporters from the White House into the Oval Office for the first few minutes of their conversation.
We have come to expect the unexpected from President Trump, but even journalists covering his every move seemed a bit taken aback by his decision to single out Perry, summoning her to his desk with a spindly finger of a mean teacher to a young student, saying: “And where are you from? Go ahead, come here. Where are you from? We have all of this beautiful Irish press. Where are you from?”
Trump told Varadkar that Perry had a “beautiful smile on her face”, which I’m sure was truly thrilling information to the Taoiseach. But the climax of this brief, entirely bizarre moment was his concluding statement.
“I bet she treats you well”, he told Varadkar, which not only completely minimises her work as a journalist, but manages to not so subtly insult the US media, which he regularly claims lie about him to push their ‘fake news’ agenda.
Finally, Trump said: “He thanks you for the newspapers Caitriona”, a comment which was met with fits of giggles by her fellow reporters crowding around the Oval Office as she made her way back to the pool.
And so, Caitriona did what every woman has done when faced with an uncomfortable encounter with a man in power, she grinned and bared it for the sake of her job.
What should have been a memorable moment in Perry’s career – a meet and greet with the US President (even a President Trump), has turned into a circus of objectification by the international media: she has become the talking point, rather than the original story which was Trump calling Varadkar to discuss Brexit, free trade and the 50,000 undocumented Irish in America.
Caitriona later shared the video on her Twitter account, labelling it a “bizarre” encounter, which prompted a barrage of support from Trump critics, of which there are so many.
Debate has been waging about her reaction, largely from men, noting the fact that she couldn't have been that annoyed about it because she laughed about it and shared it on her Twitter account – indicative of the blissful naivete which can only come from a man who has never been put in an uncomfortable situation by a member of the opposite sex in a more senior position to them.
I’m not sure I would have done anything differently than Caitriona. She handled the situation as gracefully as possible and even if she hated every second of their interaction, there is a time and a place – and that time was not yesterday and that place was not in front of Andrew Jackson's portrait in the Oval Office with the world’s media watching.
We could wax lyrical about Trump’s disrespectful behaviour towards women, his oppressive policy ideas and offensive language; but those traits are well documented every single day. We are at peak Trump. And it seems no one is safe when it comes to his regime of humiliation among those in the White House - he has no qualms about singling out reporters, but he has saved the "tough talk" for men and surely sees nothing wrong with giving a woman a "compliment" around her appearance, because as his former model wife surely knows, in Trump's eyes, a woman's value is based only on her looks.
Trump is like that creepy man in a nightclub/bar/cafe/library who tells strange women to smile.
Soon after this exchange went viral, the coverage fell nearly entire in Perry’s favour. This morning, it was the main story on the Mail Online, featuring a clip of her giggling as she walks towards the desk, accompanied by an image of her in a glittering Theia metallic dress from her covering the Oscars.
The headline says, “sexist in chief”, but the pictures say something else.
Nobody expects Mail Online to be the voice of the female revolution, but it’s not the only publication to jump on a trending story with gusto.
The BBC has felt it necessary to ask the question, “sexist or nice?” in analysing the social media reaction to the clip and usually, if you have to ask the question, you usually already know the answer. Even some Irish publications have “introduced” us to Perry with “things to know” about her as if Irish readers couldn’t recite the biography of every RTE reporter and presenter over the last 10 years at the drop of a hat.
As US correspondent, Perry has become something of a ‘celebrity journalist’, as all foreign correspondents tend to with the state broadcaster (lest we ever forget Charlie Bird’s infamous 2010 documentary American Year) and she appeared on The Late Late Show in January to discuss her experience during the American election and explain why women voted for Trump.
But for once, this wasn’t RTE looking to the canteen when they were stuck for guests to fill airtime: this was an experienced Irish reporter on the ground for one of the most divisive elections in US history, following Trump and his rival Hilary Clinton across the 50 states.
It also happens that the increasing availability of information means people have been more engaged or interested in news coverage.
In her adopted home across the pond, the likes of Katie Couric and Megyn Kelly are both celebrities in their own right and Kelly in particular knows how hard it is to recover from a Trump-induced attack, citing their now-infamous row starting from 2015, when he suggested she had her period when he didn't like her line of questioning.
"It was bizarre because I became the story. He was so very focused on me that I became the story, and you know, you never want to be the story when you’re a newsperson,” she said. “You want to be covering the story, so it was like an ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ experience."
Caitriona has yet to comment or further elaborate on her experience, but in a world where Donald Trump is president and White House press credentials are cut at the snap of a finger, I expect we'll never know what her own Alice experience was like.