In a recent interview with the TODAY show, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter opened up about a host of hot-button topics, including nuclear Iran, the ISIS threat, and Bowe Bergdahl. Perhaps most pressingly, he addressed that clip of Vice President Joe Biden getting cheeky with his wife, Stephanie Carter.
The so-called “close-talking” incident went down last month at Carter’s swearing-in ceremony, where Biden put his hands on Stephanie’s shoulders, lingered there way too long, and whispered something into her ear. Footage of their creepy exchange exploded on social media, with some of the more choice tweets looking like this:
— Jennifer Cohagen (@JenniferCohagen) February 18, 2015
Even NBC deemed Biden the “Veep Creep.”
But during his today interview, Ashton Carter shrugged off the hoopla. “I laughed,” he said of his reaction to the video. “They know each other extremely well. We’re great friends of the Bidens.”
In that sense, Carter isn’t alone. Most of us probably chuckled a bit when we saw Biden in all his creepy-uncle glory. He seems so utterly oblivious and ridiculous. But the incident wasn’t funny, not really. As Nico Lang pointed out on The Daily Dot, that kind of unsolicited touching is sexual harassment, plain and simple. It is also an expression of a very sexist sort of power. “When a man touches a woman without asking,” Lang writes, “he’s doing so because he feels entitled to access to her body.”
Lang and other writers have compared Biden to another star offender in the arena of invasive male touching: John Travolta. At this year’s Oscars, Travolta went off on a veritable grope-fest, first swooping in to kiss a very displeased-looking Scarlett Johansson on the red carpet, then clasping Idina Menzel’s face in what is sure to go down as one of the more awkward moments in television history (not a short list, especially where the Oscars are concerned).
And while we’re on the topic of the Academy Awards, we should mention Adrian Brody, who grabbed Halle Berry into a full-on kiss after he won his Oscar for The Pianist.
Berry seemed fine with it, and the cultural consensus decided that the smooch-fest was charming. Had she not been so keen, though, what could she have done about it? Pushed Brody away, perhaps. But no one could fault Berry—or any other woman—for not wanting to cause an explosive scene in front of millions of people.
When famous men kiss and touch in very public and very dignified forums—like the Oscars or the White House—their offenses get mocked, and shared, and re-tweeted, to be sure. But in the moment, the women at the receiving end of their unsolicited attentions undoubtedly feel like they need to stand there, frozen smiles on their faces, pretending to be cool with it all. And that’s almost as upsetting as the touching itself.