The Jim Acosta affair is the latest instalment in Donald Trump’s long-running tirade against the media. When a young White House intern attempted to grab the microphone from the CNN journalist’s hand during a midterm-election press conference, Acosta appeared to reflexively push her arm away. Donald Trump then failed to retain composure as Acosta probed him on the Mueller investigation and collusion with Russia. In response, he called the journalist a ‘rude, terrible person’.
The main debate stemming from the interaction has been whether Jim Acosta’s actions towards the woman constituted harassment, with Republican commentators abusing the essential characteristic of gender to legitimise Acosta’s press pass revocation.
Conservative and right-wing spokespeople are loudly decrying Acosta’s physical contact with the woman an assault. They are drawing on the legacy of #MeToo and #BelieveWomen without irony to justify their attacks — conveniently oblivious to the confirmation of a US Supreme Court nominee that sexually assaulted women and lied under oath.
‘@Acosta, you clearly put your hands on her. You used your left arm and hand to overpower her’,
These were the words tweeted by infowars editor Paul Joseph Watson (@PrisonPlanet) — the doctor of the doctored video. He was backed by fellow alt-right media outlets such as @ForAmerica, who sardonically remarked:
‘So, we’re going to pretend Jim Acosta didn’t just do this to a female. Interesting.’
Absurdly, the debate has proceeded without consent or consultation of the woman herself. The narrative of her vandalised victimhood and vulnerability has been woven in her absence. As Sarah Sanders indulged on Twitter:
‘President Trump … welcomes tough questions of him and his Administration. We will, however, never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern …’.
The biggest tragedy here is not Trump’s personal war with the liberal press, which, although clearly a blow to the sanctity of free speech, is perhaps expected. Instead, it is the way in which the White House intern has found herself dragged into a gendered debate about how men and women should physically interact in public.
At its most extreme, the implications of accepting Acosta’s actions as ‘assault’ are on course to prohibiting physical male-female contact of any kind — lest that contact be misconstrued and career-ending.
More than anything, this is an insulting and hypocritical stance to adopt towards women, most of whom do not think of themselves as needing male protection, advocacy and stiff cordiality on their behalf. Women, contrary to how they are portrayed by the traditionalist alt-right, are strong, resilient individuals capable of withstanding the weight of male arms on top of their own.
Arguably, what this episode has initiated is a regressive backwards slide towards an essentialised form of ‘separate spheres’ ideology, which is rising from its historic burial ground in the late nineteenth century to loom over Trump’s administration like a dense black shadow.
The crux of it is this: publicly touching a woman can be weaponised to derail a career, but privately assaulting a woman can be easily dismissed, and allow an individual to proceed to the American Presidency or US Supreme Court.
Regrettably, the tweets portray the White House intern as nothing but a representation of her gender. She is being reduced to an anonymous symbol of what all women stand for under hypocritical Republican ideology — an untouchable object that can only be molested in private. This is a practical mantra if anything: there’s usually no visual proof when incidents occur behind closed doors, and that makes it hard to derail a Supreme Court nomination for one thing.
To buy into this who-touched-who element of the Acosta-Trump dispute risks legitimising renegade applications of a public and private dichotomy that women have historically battled against in both America and the UK. It paradoxically accords men power by preventing physical contact between the sexes in public, only to justify latent abuse of all kinds when men and women interact in the confines of their own home.
More helpful, and less archaic, would be to regard the physical interaction between Acosta and the intern as nothing more than an equal exchange of frustration between two, mutually co-existing individuals: individuals who should not be reduced to their gender for political purposes.
It’s important to remember that the long fight for female suffrage, education and employment was about more than having a tokenistic role in society: it was about women being able to freely and physically exist in male-dominated spaces. It was about women being able to touch and kiss whomever they want and interact with others, including men, free from prescribed limits on their physical movement.
And yes, this fight was also about women letting those of the opposite sex place their arms on theirs as they try to grab microphones out of their hands. To see it any other way risks once again allowing men to dictate the terms of their physical contact with women, and that’s a slippery slope.