Thursday 14 November 2019

How America's Sexist-In-Chief made Caitriona a global star

Despite the vicarious outrage, Trump's creepy flirting will turn out to be positive for RTE's Caitriona Perry, writes Donal Lynch

RTE’s Caitriona Perry and President Trump
RTE’s Caitriona Perry and President Trump
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

The world's press, including our own, was unanimous last week. Caitriona Perry, RTE's Washington bureau chief, had been humiliated and demeaned by Donald Trump's complimenting of her smile.

The sexist-in-chief had struck again, they all sighed, and, though Caitriona herself gave no indication that she was upset, various vicariously outraged journalists condescendingly insisted that she had plastered the smile on her face and that she had simply carried on in the face of hurt.

Only Charlie Bird, Perry's predecessor in the role, sounded a note of dissent, saying that most bureau chiefs would love to be addressed directly by the president - whatever the context.

There can be no doubt that the comment that Trump made toward Perry was awkward, a little creepy, and certainly sexist, but crucially it wasn't in any way damaging.

In fact you could say it was deeply enhancing. Gone now is any sense of the issue that both she and Bird have spoken about - being a small fish in a big pond.

From this week on everyone in Washington knows her name. After the incident her face appeared in media around the world and her professionalism and poise were praised at every turn. She was martyred to the situation and, for such an apparent atrocity, it all seemed curiously enhancing. Waterford Whispers predicted a nine-hour Late Late in her honour.

Most of the articles written about Perry extrapolated her situation with Trump with more mundane office situations - so that ordinary women could get vicariously outraged - and missed the mark by miles.

Tanya Sweeney, writing in The Irish Times, argued that Charlie Bird had 'never been the subject of an American's president's ire' (is ire really what Trump was directing at Perry? Really?) and said that, when issuing a compliment, men "want to be arbiters of praise. It's a way of taking control. Their opinion on your looks matters".

Trump, whatever we think about him, is still the president of America; it's kind of a given that he's in control, especially when you're standing on his own carpet, and that his opinions on everything matter.

The difference between him and the average leery boss is that the White House is a type of theatre and the world knows Trump's form so well. When he sulked beside Angela Merkel and ignored her handshake, this wasn't humiliating or demeaning for her. It wasn't "proof of the way men ignore women all the time" as one columnist in the UK argued.

No, this was him confirming his essential childishness before an audience of billions - and the half-smile on Merkel's face as the whole thing unfolded told you that she understood this immediately. She knew it would play well at home.

As much as the sisterhood back home wanted to make a victim of her, Perry didn't just smile as the Trump incident played out; she beamed. Perhaps she was doing the only think she could do or perhaps she had an inkling how this would play out.

There was a lesson perhaps in the case of Mika Brzezinski - the host of MSNBC's Morning Joe, whose feud with Trump got spectacularly ugly last week (he made allegations about plastic surgery on Twitter; she responded that he was mentally ill and alleged that Trump had threatened her and her co-host/fiance with bad press).

Despite Trump's bluster to the contrary, Brzezinski has seen the ratings of her show skyrocket since she began to really get under Trump's skin. After he attacked her this week, she cut short a holiday to go on the air and boasted that she had "played" him.

You could see through the whole thing the complete myth of the oft-repeated sentence 'no journalist wants to become the story'.

Brzezinski was at the centre of the story - and revelled in it. She is now a sexism martyr and a journalism star: Woodward, Bernstein and Anita Hill all rolled into one.

Why did journalists all rush to impute motivations and reactions to Caitriona Perry?

The truth of the matter is that there is, of course, sexism in media, and in the words of Gloria Steinem it oppresses both genders differently.

Telegenic young women are given chances early in their career that would seldom be granted to young men. When people like Joe Brolly note this fact, they themselves are accused of sexism.

Journalists have a hard time thinking clearly about sexism because it's personal: most of them are victims or beneficiaries of it.

There's a strange sense with Perry and Trump as well that the politics of the man inform the outrage.

A few years back, I met a group of Irish women who had just been to a dinner here which had been attended by Bill Clinton. The stories of his supposed flirting were recounted with a eye-rolling indulgence, the humble brag of "I've still got it" implicit in each of them.

Nobody thought to feel humiliated. All had clamoured for pictures with him and the placement of his hand on their backs was recounted in breathless detail.

One of them pulled out a camera phone to show me a grainy picture of her back touching Clinton's back as they stood up. It looked more down to the clumsy positioning of the chairs than anything, but one thing is certain: if it had been Trump in the picture, it would have been evidence of harassment.

Sunday Independent

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