This is a man’s world. The airside tarmac, as Air Force One touched down in Shannon, was dotted in men. In a makeshift meeting room at Shannon Airport, US president Donald Trump and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar were flanked by their requisite back-up teams.
In the Irish corner was Mr Varadkar’s chief of staff, Brian Murphy; our most senior Brexit official, John Callinan; special US envoy John Deasy; and Ireland’s ambassador to America, Daniel Mulhall. In the American corner was Mr Trump’s own chief of staff, Mick Mulvaney, national security adviser, John Bolton; and secretary of the US Treasury, Steve Mnuchin. Big jobs.
Meanwhile, the documentation of Melania’s catwalk across the British Isles was in full swing; her to-die-for coat, her sartorial nod to Princess Diana and some sort of garment that was made from a fabric that apparently had red buses on it. When all the world’s a stage and the men get the big parts and the women are reduced to decorative props, what does that do to watching minds?
Let there be no falsely claimed moral high ground here. I, for one, couldn’t help but be drawn into Melania’s wardrobe, the fabric of her coats, the cut of them, her sharp collars and the brims of her hats. The style was alluring. It was charted on news sites both here and abroad, articles dedicated solely to the First Lady’s clothing arrangements.
I mentioned my guilty pleasure to a handful of people, tentatively dipping my toe in the water to see what kind of reception Melania would get. My guilty pleasure was met by radio silence.
And then I got whiplash. It was a photo that did it, a photo from down at the Mexican border. It showed a young woman in soil-covered jeans holding her baby across her chest as she breastfed her while queuing to talk to border patrol agents.
It was accompanying a piece in The New York Times on the latest statistics on immigrants being apprehended at the US-Mexican border. According to the NYT, more than 144,200 migrants were arrested and taken into custody along the southwestern border in May — a 32% increase on April and the highest monthly total in 13 years.
And then I remembered Melania’s sartorial choice when she visited that same border, and a children’s shelter specifically, last June. The back of her khaki jacket read: “I really don’t care, do you?”
And then I remembered I really don’t care what Melania wears, and neither should you. After all, it’s Donald who’s the elected one, not her, and we don’t spend much time charting the fabric of his suits, the colour of his ties or the crispness of his shirts.
Instead, we hang on every word he says. We print it. We broadcast it. We react to it. We amplify it. He’s photographed on podiums and stages, at lecterns and in front of microphones, shaking or wrestling the hands of European peers, he presents as a power player and we willing conspire in reproducing this image.
‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World’, a song attributed casually to James Brown, was co-written with a woman called Betty Jean Newsome. But a bit like rounding down decimal points, we’ve reduced the writing credits to just James. It’s a song that Katie Taylor regularly uses for her ring walk.
And when she was fighting last weekend, so much of the professional commentary was about how great a female boxer she is, with each broadcaster inevitably rounding back to say: “But I mean, male or female, she’s just a great boxer. She’s as good as any man.”
Maybe she’s just good. As she went her 10 rounds with her Belgian opponent Delfine Persoon in Madison Square Garden last Saturday night, the online commentary was less PC.
“It’s like watching my aunty and mother getting beaten up, I can’t watch this,” was one memorable, but hardly unique tweet. But there was one thing, no one was commenting on either women’s attire, because for once, it wasn’t about that.
Just like Donald’s and the diplomats’ suits, the clothes were just functional, a necessity in the carrying out of one’s duties. But for Melania, it seems her duty could just be to reinforce the stereotype that women are to be seen and not heard. Look nice, be nice, and let the men take care of the rest.
And maybe that’s why women boxing is so jarring for so many — you neither look nice, nor do you behave nicely, in the carrying out of that task. It turns the stereotypical role of women as nurturing, self-sacrificing goddesses on its head.
It’s a bit like the hit BBC America TV series Killing Eve with Fiona Shaw and Jodie Comer, where Comer plays psychopathic assassin Villanelle. In one of her many stabbing scenes, Villanelle’s victim says: “I thought women didn’t stab people.” Villanelle replies:
A fictional female killer who never fears for her life is a novel thing that’s welcomed by some, but for others, they are still looking for nuance. One of these detractors is actor Emma Thompson, who says we’ve gone from presenting women purely in domestic roles to now all of a sudden having them as violent villains.
“Women now invent the weapons and shoot the weapons and are tough and not allowed to cry,” Thompson said in a recent interview. “We skipped from being in the kitchen to being in the tank, and there’s nothing in between. So we still have failed to explore and bring to the screen what being a woman is.”
This is a man’s world and yet it is not. Men may hold more of the paid jobs, boardroom seats, ministerial positions, and movie directing credits, but it is not a man’s world, it’s just designed as such. The same way, the world is designed for able-bodied people to move around in, and yet we are not all able-bodied.
We have a design job on our hands, and it’s not about hems and silhouettes, fabrics, and millinery, it’s about refashioning our world so that it works for everyone.