Some of my closest friends are women.
In typical essay fashion, I started making a list to support this generalization, an account of all the women I’ve counted as buddies, or shared houses and apartments with, or worked with, a list that stretched all the way back to my teenage years, where I was the sole guy at my high school lunch table. But then I felt silly. It’s almost 2014! Of course guys and girls can be just friends. Duh.
So the “scandal” over President Obama’s photo with Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt strikes me as ridiculous. As Carolyn Edgar on Salon writes, there’s an implicit sexism at play here, with a dash of racism as well.
I’m sure you’ve seen the photos. At a memorial event to honor Nelson Mandela, an AFP photographer captured the President laughing with the Danish Prime Minister while his wife stares into the distance, a somewhat dour expression on her face. The narrative that surfaced on the news and via social media imagined the First Lady as a jealous, angry, scorned wife; the President as a flirty, straying man; and the Prime Minister as a blond temptress. In a surprisingly bipartisan turn of events, a picture from the same memorial show President George W. Bush laughing with Queen Rania of Jordan, while Laura Bush looks away, unsmiling. “Presidents Behaving Badly,” The New York Daily News quipped.
Well, if by badly you mean sociably. Is it a problem for a man to talk to a woman, to crack a joke and laugh, for one to lean toward another in conversation, or for a hand to be placed on an arm or shoulder to emphasize a point or express friendship? When two men communicate in this manner, we don’t assume that there’s a homosexual attraction between them. It’s sexist to assume that this is the case between men and women. Eye contact, body language, animated expressions — these are the signs of affable, warm banter. They don’t necessarily indicate sexual attraction.
As Edgar points out on Salon, a photo with the genders reversed — Laura Bush talking with the Queen while President Bush looks off into the distance — didn’t generate attention the way the other photos did. That’s because this photo doesn’t lend itself to nearly as compelling a story as the other, right? But that’s more a result of our expectations, not the situation itself. It’s easy to think of a man, even a president, leaving his wife for another woman, while the thought that the wife might leave the husband for a woman seems somewhat outlandish. And yet in reality, that happens. This is how our response to these photographs tells us more about ourselves than they do the reality they depict.
And what an awful response it’s been! Rush Limbaugh, who I’ve had issues with before, called the Prime Minister a “Danish Babe” and criticized the President for giving her an overly long kiss on the cheek. A female commentator on Fox News called the Prime Minister a “Leggy Blond,” while one male commentator referred to her as a “Danish Pastry,” and another said that he “would have done a lot more” than take a photo with her. (See Media Matters for a rundown of how Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt was objectified.) Having these kinds of jokes on a national news network — about a world leader, no less — are offensive! They focus solely on Prime Minister Thorning-Schmidt’s gender and appearance, they reduce her to an object of desire.
These views, and the longevity of this non-story, this non-scandal, demonstrate how the idea that the only relationship a man and a woman can have is a sexual, romantic one continues to maintain power in our culture. Earlier this week, I wrote about how a stay-at-home dad wasn’t invited to participate in a committee at his son’s school because it met at a woman’s house. The woman’s husband wasn’t comfortable with a man coming over during the day, when the husband is at work. Come on, people! Men and women can be just friends and colleagues.
Need proof? Look at the other shots that photographer Roberto Schmidt took of President Obama palling around with the Danish Prime Minister and British Prime Minister David Cameron. You see three adults having a good time at a four-hour-long event that Schmidt describes as “carnival atmosphere.” The photographer describes how First Lady Michele Obama was joking around with these world leaders seconds before he snapped the photo in which she appears so peeved. Taken together, it appears that men and women who work together in the political sphere can also be a little silly and irreverent, that they can joke with one another, and express admiration of each other, and have fun. In other words, they are human beings.
The only sexual overtones are the ones that you bring to the table. So get your mind out of the gutter, ok?