If there’s one thing women know how to do well, it’s deftly handle lecherous men. That’s why it didn’t surprise me when reporter Caitriona Perry laughed and smiled as Donald Trump made inappropriate comments toward her in the Oval Office. She was doing what we’ve all done, so many times over – trying to defuse an uncomfortable situation.
Trump, who was on the phone with the Irish prime minister at the time, asked Perry to come toward his desk while he called her “beautiful” and remarked on her “nice smile”. He then said to newly elected Leo Varadkar: “I bet she treats you well.”
It was a tense and cringe-inducing moment, one Perry called later called “bizarre” on Twitter. In the aftermath, though, some noted that Perry continued to smile and laugh as the president spoke to her, as if that meant the exchange didn’t bother or trouble her.
I don’t know how Perry felt outside of her characterization on Twitter, but I do know that the moment she had with Trump will feel familiar to a lot of women.
So many of us have been in similar situations: a man is making us feel uncomfortable, but his comments don’t rise to the level of reacting with outrage. Women also tend to know, from experience, that if a man says something sexual or inappropriate, calling him out on the comment or getting aggressive is not always the best move.
Women don’t want to come across as though they’re overreacting or “hysterical” – common accusations when you speak up about harassment. You don’t want to make a fuss because you know saying anything will just make the exchange last longer. Or get confrontational.
And so you laugh and smile, nod and remove yourself from the situation as quickly as possible. Maybe because it’s easier, but often because it’s safer. Women have been berated, attacked – and, in extreme situations, killed – for rejecting men. And so smiling politely becomes like muscle memory.
Trump is not only the president of the United States – reason enough to react in a deferential way when he makes strange comments – he’s also a man who has been accused of sexual assault multiple times over.
He’s been caught on video bragging about grabbing women by their genitals. He’s a notorious misogynist who has berated and abused women throughout his life. Any charged exchange that a woman has with him will be contextualized through that troubling lens.
And truly, what other way was Perry supposed to respond? Say that she didn’t appreciate Trump talking about her looks? Remarking to the president of the United States that she found his comments offensive? Please.
Trump supporter and CNN commentator Kayleigh McEnany said yesterday that the president is just a “personable” guy and that “the press should be applauding the fact that he’s bringing reporters into the oval office, calling them out and including them”. Something tells me, though, that most female reporters would rather not be “included” in whatever Trump has in mind for them.
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