Donald Trump is no stranger to sexual harassment, and yesterday was no exception.
On the phone with Ireland’s newly elected prime minister, Caitriona Perry caught his eye, among the Irish press corp standing by. “We have all this beautiful Irish press. Where are you from?” said the president from his seat in the oval office, pointing at Perry, Washington correspondent for Ireland’s RTE. Curling his finger with a beckoning look, he told Perry to “come on over” to his desk, and asked where she’s from. She answered respectfully, if meekly. Then, in a profoundly unsurprising, predatory fashion, the US president told his Irish counterpart on the phone, “She has a nice smile on her face, so I bet she treats you well.” Everyone laughed.
Every woman, no matter her profession, can relate to Perry’s “bizarre moment,” as she called it on Twitter. It epitomizes all those irritating displays of male entitlement on the street, in the classroom, and perhaps most infuriatingly, at work.
I would have thought that in 2017, most men realize that commenting on a woman’s appearance in the workplace is inappropriate, offensive, and wildly tone deaf. One need only to Google “Uber” for a quick primer on male chauvinistic don’ts and don’ts. But clearly I’m a victim of wishful thinking, even when it comes to our nation’s president.
I won’t bother with lecturing men on the obvious lessons, since too often that hasn’t seemed to help. And I won’t bother lecturing women, either. This video should serve only as a moment of female solidarity and catharsis. Because we all know how paralyzing it feels to be in that double-bind: damned if you challenge a male co-worker’s sense of privilege, damned if you don’t. Could Perry have stood up to Trump in the moment, by saying “excuse me” or staring him down while she had the limelight?
The answer is maybe yes, maybe no. If we call out men’s patronizing sexism—when they comment on our smile, hair, body, clothing, or (my personal favorite) have the audacity to tell us to smile, we risk being flagged as overly-sensitive at best, and a bitch at worst. And in the process, we compromise our own success.
The alternative response—to acquiesce as Perry did—is equally damning. Feminists will view complicit behavior as a missed opportunity to push gender equality. Men of Trump’s ilk will read it as fawning, and proof that the woman’s a bimbo. And all of it will ultimately prove uncomfortable and distracting for women whose focus should rightfully be on their work.
In fact, there is no “best” way to approach a situation like Perry’s. Of course, it’s good policy to report inappropriate collegial behavior to human resources, and that can help. But for those who don’t speak up, rest assured that it doesn’t make you a bad feminist.
Whether Trump ever learns to see his sexism for what it is isn’t the point. We should just take comfort in a universal sigh of dismay, and leave it at that.