It's nearly 2014 and here's where we are in the gender wars: A female prime minister talking to a male president is presumed to be flirting, and he is presumed to be flirting back. His Ivy-League-educated wife, sitting with them, is presumed to be preparing to claw both their eyes out. Or so the Internet buzzed Tuesday when it took off after President Obama, First Lady Michelle Obama and Denmark's Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt.
The setting was the memorial service in Soweto's soccer stadium for Nelson Mandela; the prime minister and the Obamas were seated in the VIP section during the lengthy, dance-filled, upbeat celebration of Mandela's 95 years.
AFP photographer Roberto Schmidt was some distance away, watching Obama through his telephoto lens, taking pictures as Thorning Schmidt, Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron conversed. Schmidt captured the moment when Thorning Schmidt pulled out her phone and took a picture of three leaders -- a "selfie" that launched a million snide insinuations.
One was that they were behaving inappropriately, since they were at a memorial service. The more off-putting suggestion was that, being female, the prime minister must have been flirting. And being male, the president must have been flirting back, and his wife must have been mightily ticked off.
"Flirting with Dane-ger: Mrs. O not amused by Bam and pretty PM" blared the New York Daily News. A Los Angeles Times blogger averred that "it appears from photos of the incident that Obama was not the instigator (that distinction goes to Thorning-Schmidt). But he seems to have participated happily, though First Lady Michelle Obama seemed unimpressed by the whole spectacle."
Photographers usually let their pictures do the talking, but Schmidt was sufficiently mortified by the coverage that he posted a piece defending his subjects and criticizing the implications that had, he said, erroneously been drawn.
"All around me in the stadium, South Africans were dancing, singing and laughing to honor their departed leader," he said, offering context for the seemingly light-hearted actions of the world leaders. "It was more like a carnival atmosphere, not at all morbid. The ceremony had already gone on for two hours and would last another two. The atmosphere was totally relaxed -- I didn’t see anything shocking in my viewfinder, president of the U.S. or not. We are in Africa."
"I later read on social media that Michelle Obama seemed to be rather peeved on seeing the Danish prime minister take the picture. But photos can lie. In reality, just a few seconds earlier the first lady was herself joking with those around her, Cameron and Schmidt included. Her stern look was captured by chance."
Schmidt, who had the luxury of actually being there, said he thought "the world leaders were simply acting like human beings, like me and you. I doubt anyone could have remained totally stony faced for the duration of the ceremony, while tens of thousands of people were celebrating in the stadium .... I see nothing to complain about, and probably would have done the same in their place."
As writer Felix Salmon noted the same day in an unrelated column, the present imperative of the Web is to be less concerned with truth than clicks, a circumstance that in cases like this encourage the most raucous or suggestive explanation for everything, the better to draw viral attention.
While pondering that, it's worth pondering something else as well. On the day that another glass ceiling shattered -- Mary Barra was named chief executive of General Motors, the first woman to head a major car company -- the age-old specter of a woman-on-woman catfight erupted again.
No one but the principals knows what, exactly, the world leaders were talking about. It could have been Danish-U.S.-British relations. It could have been their kids. It stretches credulity and common sense to imagine they were flirting. But that is where we are, at the approach of 2014.