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The Mandela-Memorial Coverage Just Got Even Dumber

A "flirting" nontroversy gives an unfortunate example of the kind of news treatment female politicians have to lean into.

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New York Post
New York Post

Whoever was in charge of preparing dumb-controversy stories in advance of the Nelson Mandela memorial service: well done, folks.

The parade of nontroversies began yesterday with the ginned-up outrage over President Obama’s having shaken the hand of Cuban leader Raul Castro. (The proper response instead being…? Slapping Castro across the face with a glove? Offering him an exploding cigar? Luring him into a locked room as a string band strikes up “The Rains of Castamere”?) Then came the explosion of reports over the selfie Obama took with the prime ministers of Denmark and Great Britain–which, OK, was questionable optics on the part of the world leaders, but not exactly the “international incident” it was headlined as.

Not to be outdone, however, the New York Post this morning, suggesting on its cover that Michelle Obama was angry over her husband’s “flirting” with the Danish leader, Helle Thorning Schmidt. The evidence? A photo seeming to catch the First Lady mid-glare. (Or not; the photographer who snapped the selfie picture reported, to much less attention, that Michelle Obama was joking with Schmidt and others moments before. Here’s a photo you’re not seeing reprinted everywhere.) The fact that Obama was smiling and engaging with a world leader at a public event. (So I assume the “Obama Flirting With Cameron” stories are right around the corner.)

Oh, and yes: that the leader the people of Denmark elected was “blonde” and “pretty,” and therefore, we must assume, part of an infernal Danish plot to destabilize world governments by stealing their men.

Welcome to 2013, female politicians of the world! There are all sorts of reasons we’ve seen these types of stories and will see them again: the ability to overinterpret momentary gestures in still photos; the increasing tendency of social-media shiny objects to drive mainstream media coverage; and the motivation of outlets like the conservative Post to get in a shot at Obama.

But underlying this story here is that if a woman has the temerity to become leader of a country while being relatively young and good-looking, some of the world and press will inevitably see her this way. Someday, if the U.S. elects a younger woman President–Schmidt is 46, just a year younger than Obama when he was elected–this may unfortunately end up being part of what she’s leaning into.