When U.S. President Barack Obama greeted Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard on the tarmac in Canberra, the two heads-of-state kissed each other.
Although this gesture of tenderness and affection seemed to have been ignored by much of the global press, I was rather shocked by it.
Is it tasteful for the so-called leader of the Free World to publicly kiss a woman who is not his wife, particularly one who rules her own country?
Given the increasing presence of women in high levels of politics around the world, I am wondering what the “standard protocol” for such greetings should be?
I am not suggesting that Obama and Gillard are having an “affair” or anything remotely similar, yet I have to wonder why they did this, when a good firm handshake would have sufficed.
I also recall seeing photographs of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton chastely kissing European leaders during various economic summits – and that, too, struck me as strange and undignified.
I don’t ever remember anyone publicly kissing Margaret Thatcher when she was the British Prime Minister (not that anyone would want to). Similarly, I cannot remember other prominent women politicians like India’s Indira Gandhi or Israel’s Golda Meir ever receiving a kiss from male heads of state.
However, an article in the Herald Sun newspaper of Melbourne, Australia, addressed the subject directly, but in a completely humorous and satirical vein.
“Julia Gillard and Barack Obama are a touchy pairing,” wrote Patrick Carlyon. “Their hands, like disembodied life forms, seek out the other's shoulders and backs. Gillard blushes, like a high school girl who has, finally, after much bedroom plotting, captured the gaze of the football captain.”
Carlyon mischievously added: “Gillard glowed, head bowed, as though a new beau was being introduced to the family for the first time. Gillard and Obama plainly like each other… In Obama's company, Gillard looks like she's won a date with George Clooney.”
Carylon even speculated: “She [Gillard] has added a dash of coquettishness, if not flirting, to US-Australian relations. The relationship has evolved.”
Jamie Chandler, a professor of political science at Hunter College in New York City commented: “The circumstances depend on the political protocol for each country. Protocol has grown more informal over the past several decades because of changing social norms. What the public will or will not tolerate is depends on the circumstances. We certainly see this in how politicians behave in televised interviews and debates.”
However, it seems I am not alone in my discomfort with the Obama-Gillard kiss.
One commenter to a Herald Sun story, ‘Annalisa of Sydney’ (presumably a woman) criticized Gillard.
“Why did Julia Gillard kiss Obama?” Annalisa asked. “She was acting like a star-struck teenager who was delighted to be hanging around the cool kids from school.”
Another commenter, ‘Bernie of Melbourne’, explicitly declared: “I think it was inappropriate for her to kiss Barack. Totally wrong!”
Apparently, Gillard (whose popularity in Australia is on shaky ground) has kissed before.
Yet another Herald Sun commenter named ‘Notlostforwords’ blasted: “Oh my god Julia, not another greeting with a KISS. You are political allies; gender should be left at the door. It turns my stomach every time she does this. How about a good old fashioned handshake instead? Much more appropriate and not half as cringe-worthy.”
Some cultures strictly frown on kissing between unmarried people. An Australian woman kissing the American president is probably acceptable (by people of both countries), but it is highly unlikely that Gillard would ever kiss, say, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of India. (Such an event would likely prompt a diplomatic crisis and give the Indian media its hottest story for the next three months).
If a foreign male leader had tried to kiss Benazir Bhutto when she was Prime Minister of Pakistan, it would have led to bloody riots on the streets of Karachi and Lahore and calls for war against the state of the offending statesmen.
Four years ago, when the American actor Richard Gere publicly kissed Indian actress Shilpa Shetty at a public event in New Delhi, it caused widespread outrage and even violence in India (against both Gere and Shetty, even though he initiated the kiss). Protesters in Mumbai set fire to effigies of Gere and accused the Hollywood actor of “insulting” Indian culture.
But why would kissing be “acceptable” among politicians in the western cultures? In the workplace, (where women are increasingly becoming managers and executives), kissing between male and female colleagues would probably be considered distasteful… and might even lead to accusations of sexual harassment or worse.
If kissed (or tried to kiss) a female colleague publicly in the office (even if we got along very well), I would likely get in serious trouble… and deservedly so.
Alas, I am now wondering what will happen with the U.S. finally elects a woman president. When she meets with foreign dignitaries at important global summits, will she be expected to kiss the foreign male Presidents and Prime Ministers upon greeting them? And would such an incident even evoke any controversy in an increasingly jaded and indifferent world?
Chandler concluded: “Because social interactions have grown less formal, and media coverage more proliferate, we'll certainly be entertained by many more of these situations in the future.”