On 21 January, following the inauguration of the 45th President of the United States, millions of women and supporters around the world marched in protest. Women marched not only for themselves, but for all women and minorities subjected to attack during the now-elected Donald Trump's campaign. Almost immediately after this global expression of concern for equal rights, anti-discrimination, equal opportunity and the full inclusion of everyone into the category of 'person' and 'human', the United Kingdom Prime Minister, Therese May, met with the man who had shown so little regard for any of these principles and, indeed, had spent the entirety of the months leading up to his election denigrating them.
Prime Minister May's apparent pride at being the first national leader to meet with Mr Trump appears to be associated, at least in part, with the assertion that the United Kingdom and United States have a 'special relationship'. It was also, it seems, a part of the United Kingdom government's need to establish trade relations outside the European Union trade block following the Brexit referendum.
Yet it seems equally clear that Mrs May is less than cognisant with the fact that her responsibility in addressing the United States' President lies not only in regard to trade or a purported 'special relationship'. Like the marchers of 21 January, the Prime Minister's responsibility lies with those groups whom Mr Trump chose to denounced, demean and deride in the lead up to his election.
The Prime Minister is reported to have said that the 'biggest statement' made when she 'sits down' with the President is that she 'will be there as female prime minister, directly talking to him about the interests we share'. Yet this is a President who has openly acknowledged engaging in so-called 'locker room' talk objectifying women, laying claim to a right to molest women, and describing women's body parts in animalistic terms. He neither 'confessed' this nor 'admitted' it, albeit employing the word 'apologise', for his acknowledgement was made without guilt or shame. Indeed, his agreement that his words were recorded in the exchange with a media personality appeared to be an affirmation of his every right to conduct himself and speak in that way, for he appeared ultimately to excuse his words because of their (figurative) location.
When the Prime Minister 'sat down' did she truly believe that no such locker room talk had been engaged in prior to her entry into the room? Did she believe that immediately following her exit, no such talk erupted? Women marching on 21 January are not so naïve, for every woman with any comprehension of the 'boys in the locker room' mentality is well-aware that this talk can and does occur not only in locker rooms, but in rooms housing the highest offices of state. Women know that each of us can be a target of this talk, whatever role we have, whatever office we hold, whatever place we have in the hierarchy. This is why we march not only for ourselves (that too!) but for all women the world over. It is why we join together in recognition that the locker room is never far from where we stand – or sit – in whatever country or town or office, chamber or corridor, market or shopping centre, factory or fairground.
Women down the hierarchy, those at its bottom, are at greatest risk of abuse and denigration. Yet no woman, prime minister or not, is immune. Instead of believing as she professedly does that her office will protect her from the talk of the locker room, or that somehow that means she is standing firm against the confessions (sic) of the 45th President of the United States, the Prime Minister should make clear to every woman throughout the United Kingdom – and hence to the world – that the abuse and denigration of women and women's bodies is unacceptable – most particularly when it emanates from the mouth of a president-to-be.
Yet the contention that being Prime Minister was an answer that trumped all these concerns was not the only error. Evidently, she requires not only sage advice on her engagement with President Trump on substantive issues including equal rights. Her PR machine needs to address her engagement with him as to words and visual images, too.
Immediately before her White House visit, in addressing journalists' contentions that the two have 'differences', Prime Minister May apparently asserted: 'Haven't you ever noticed, sometimes opposites attract?' The sexualised overtone of this expression is not only inappropriate but surely emphasised when the man to whom she refers is notorious for his derogatory campaign trail remarks about women and allusions to women's bodily functions. Its sexual imagery looms even larger in light of his 'locker room talk'.
Having thus trivialised a meeting between heads of state, the Prime Minister then went on reportedly to assert that she would 'confront him [Donald Trump] about issues such as torture'. Certainly, the admission by the President that he supports torture must be confronted. Praise to the Prime Minister for doing so. Yet surely it is difficult to be taken seriously on such a serious matter, when her statement that she would take Trump to task on it came swiftly upon the 'opposites attract' flippancy?
No one today expects heads of state to engage with solemnity at all times. A good-humoured disposition is welcome in Prime Ministers and Presidents just as in anyone else, whether high-standing or 'low'. Yet choosing when, where and how to engage in humour is vital. And resort to the triviality (or worse) of the 'opposites attract' notion immediately prior to meeting a man accused of misogyny does not seem to fit.
Coming so soon before the image of this pair proceeding hand in hand down a ramp this can serve only to emphasise the poor choice of 'opposites attract'. Hand holding and 'opposites attracting' are hardly helpful in the current economic and political climate. The Prime Minister needs to reshape her focus away from man-meets-woman, woman-meets-man to the seriousness of her position and the global concerns about Mr Trump's presidency.
And as for the image – yes, an image does say more than a thousand words, and images have a horrible tendency to follow their subjects long after the event. The media will not archive the record of the Prime Minister and President holding hands or, if they do, it will be only to bring it out whenever the 'special relationship' between the United States and the United Kingdom is touted. Ridicule and Mrs May will surely go hand in hand.
She is also Visiting Fellow, Lucy Cavendish College, University of Cambridge.