The Trump Women: Feminism, Sympathy and Doing Their Damn Jobs
In a Morning Joe segment that was of shoddier journalistic ethics than usual for the MSNBC show, Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski revealed that Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway, shock horror, doesn’t really like the President all that much. During the campaign, she would allegedly make comments about needing a shower after on-air appearances due to her dislike of her own candidate. This is small fish compared to the literal corruption and treason currently unfolding in the Trump administration, but as Conway’s visibility on Donald’s team becomes less consistent and new scandals appear as regularly as clockwork, a major question hangs over the White House: What is the role of the Trump women, and why has it become so difficult to talk about them?
We have all seen the demographics of the 2016 electorate, and how, even after the “grab her by the pussy” comments, Trump still led amongst white women. Much has already been written on this shocking yet utterly unsurprising phenomenon, this blatant narcissism that saw fantasized self-interest win over communal solidarity. It did not matter that the candidate had decades of misogyny under his belt, from his ceaseless attacks on Rosie O’Donnell to his fetishizing of his own daughters’ attractiveness, to everything he ever said about Hillary Clinton: The women voting for Trump weren’t like those women. It is this mundane exceptionalism that exemplifies the women at the heart of the Trump campaign, from alleged First Lady Melania Trump to the polished faux-perfection of her stand-in Ivanka; from the harried and crumbling propagandist Conway to the belittling ineptitude of Sarah Huckabee Sanders. These are, essentially, the exemplification of the Trump Woman: White, strictly adhering to societally approved femininity, obedient and utterly deluded.
Kellyanne Conway does not consider herself a feminist. In a profile by the New Yorker, she preferred to eschew such labels, as she believed her generation are prone to, and instead chose the mantle of “postfeminist”. The feminist movement, she argued, had been hijacked by abortion rights activists and “anti-male culture”, and she felt there was no place for someone like her or her son. That hasn’t stopped her from using the tenants of feminism as a handy shield to deflect from the criticism she receives daily for ineptly doing her job. She called CNN’s Anderson Cooper out for apparent sexism when he rolled her eyes during a segment with her; she called an MSNBC segment on her “sexist” just after the election; she even claimed Tim Kaine was sexist for interrupting a female moderator during the Vice Presidential debate. At one point, while using this defence in relation to a Buzzfeed piece about her, she even said, “I’m not one to run around screaming sexism.” Conway is entitled to call out misogyny when it rears its ugly head, and she hasn’t been short of sexist attacks throughout the campaign and beyond. Of course, that wasn’t what she was calling out. In the same Fox & Friends interview where she called out Cooper’s supposed sexism, she couldn’t resist at dig at Hillary Clinton, saying she was “in search of sexism as a lame excuse for why her disastrous candidacy and campaign lost six months ago.” The struggle of being a woman in public is not one Conway wishes to understand, unless it can be used as a weapon.
In a Buzzfeed article, Anne Helen Petersen talked of the “softening” of Conway, A CBS interview played up the “working wife and mother” angle, with Conway striving to rise above the hardship of attacks from critics. While her image may be beyond such quick-fix schemes, that hasn’t stopped the media from aiding Conway in what she does best as a politico - deflection. Even SNL can’t decide whether she’s a Fatal Attraction style obsessive or a beleaguered skivvy. Whether or not it was intended as a sympathetic slant, the Morning Joe reveal of her apparent hatred for Trump lends her an edge of relatability, or at least a bastardized version of it. It’s the “maverick” woman angle that will land her the inevitable cable news contributor gig once her time with the Trump administration ends.
What differentiates Conway from other Trump Women, or at least the women Trump prefers to be seen and to look at, is her lack of polish. She adheres to many elements of Trump endorsed femininity, from the Fox News blonde hair to the sartorial choices, but she’s evidently tired and seems uninterested in hiding that. In that sense, she is the anti-Ivanka. While the real First Lady prides herself on her pastel packaged proto-feminist “Women Who Work” ethos, her skill is in never making it look like work.
As I’ve written before, Ivanka has spent many years tailoring her public image to specifically appeal to men, but with just enough buzzword power to make female-centred media paint her as a comrade in arms. Her message of capitalist-driven feminism is her top commodity, and its parts are easy to sell: The shoes and handbags that create a prime-time ready view of businesswomen; the books that appropriate others’ words and ideas for Instagram inspiration and convenient propaganda; the magazine covers that evolved from dominating business-woman of the lad’s mag to Women Who Has It All; even the Instagram page, that positions her as The Good Daughter in between faux-inspiring shots of her work with the Trump administration and calculatingly adorable shots of her young family. She has leveraged her position as First Daughter into the echelons of power, selling an unattainable lifestyle as aspirational for the majority of American women, even as she benefits from nepotism led by a man who hates them. Ivanka gets an easier time than Conway, partly because she is softer, more palatable, and more desired. She pushes forward the narrative of a hard working woman fighting for us all, then, when called upon her complicit nature in a dangerous government, she makes herself small and sweet, even softening her voice to breathy tones of ignorance. Ivanka Trump, arguably the most powerful woman in her father’s government, is working hard to appear otherwise.
While Sean Spicer hides amongst the bushes and has the shreds of his reputation further set ablaze by a killer Melissa McCarthy impression, deputy press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders has emerged into the spotlight as the newest Trump Woman. Daughter of Mike Huckabee, Sanders does not fit the aesthetic mould Trump has lauded for so long as his ideal, but on every other way, she is suited to his team: Unflinchingly loyal yet wholly ignorant, willfully or otherwise. She is not the easily definable personality Spicer is, but she is equally incompetent at her job. Her pressings are cringe-worthy, her interviews awkward and tough to sit through, and she leaves a ceaseless Twitter trail of hypocrisy and stupidity that makes her dad’s social media comedy seem coherent. Like her father, Sanders spins an image of “family values” wholesomeness, with Twitter photos of her with her husband, and cannily orchestrated moments on the campaign trail with her dad and her daughter. Where Ivanka wields family as a personal defence, Sanders is aware of the political power of her dynasty. As a skilled and highly successful adviser and communications strategist, she may be the most qualified of the Trump Woman. That skill, however, is too easily used as a defence of morals and actions: When Trump Women do a good job, it is a sign of a bright female-friendly future for Trump and his administration; when they fail, they decree it must be because of their gender. Fox News have already attacked SNL for mocking Sanders’s size. A fair criticism, but one they seem unwilling to give to others not on their team, unless forced to do so.
This week, Fox News host and former attorney Kimberly Guilfoyle went on the record about rumours she was in line to replace Spicer as press secretary. Calling herself “a patriot”, she said it “would be an honour” to take on the job. Nothing has been confirmed yet, but Guilfoyle seems primed to be another Trump Woman. She admits her long-time friendship with Trump and loyalty to his cause, she has years of experience in politics and media, and she is beautiful. It’s hard to deny that attractiveness benefits women in the public eye, especially in politics, the supposed “showbusiness for ugly people”. Guilfoyle knows this and has leveraged her beauty into a tool on Fox News, where she stands out as the wisecracking “one of the lads” brunettes in a sea of blondes. Some of her greatest hits include: “joking” about how “it would be fantastic if Snoop and wannabe Snoop [Bow Wow] got a visit from like the federal marshals”; claiming some of Planned Parenthood’s federal funding was “allotted for abortion services”; insisting the prevailing pop culture portrayals of Muslims as terrorists “reflects reality”; repeatedly attacking Black Lives Matter as a hate group; and defending Putin as a great world leader. Guilfoyle is propaganda masked as banter; the cool girl who wishes all those other girls would lighten up. She cheers on women bombing ISIS then mounts a weak defence when the male panel around her crack sexist jokes. She sides with Scott Baio against federal probes into gender discrimination in Hollywood, claiming that’s the real sexism, then sits side by side with male colleagues smirking about her giving America “a raise”. Guilfoyle is no stranger to this act, but it has brought her incredible success she seems unwilling to give up.
Criticizing such women can be a double-edged sword, particularly amongst the male-majority political press, who struggle to decide whether to mollycoddle their preferred women or mercilessly rip apart every iota of their life. When there are so few women in the public eye, much less so in discernable positions of power, there is an instinct to give them an easier time, and for fellow women to laud them for their achievements, regardless of their beliefs or dangerous intents. In a hostile environment where women are few and far between, our gaze naturally falls upon the small number amongst Trump’s ranks. Even as they deny feminism or use it to cover their tracks, there is a tendency to embrace them as strivers working under impossible circumstances. There is a fear that the very act of criticism will be seen as sexist, even from other women, so the media trip over themselves to do ensure that doesn’t happen, often to the detriment of the work itself. Such a simple declaration becomes impossible to say out loud, so allow me to do so: Kellyanne Conway is a liar; Ivanka Trump is complicit; Sarah Huckabee Sanders is inept; Kimberly Guilfoyle is hypocritical. All of these women are bad at their jobs, and to say so is a necessity, not a sexist act. The deep seated narcissism required to aid and abet a government that treats women with such contempt - not to forget the convenient erasure of women of colour and LGBTQ+ women from their narrative - is not something that can be overlooked merely because our media struggles to understand the simple truth: Women can be bad people, and you can express that without delving into misogyny. Collaborators are not allies.
Ironically, the ideal Trump Woman is the one who has been the least visible since he entered office. Melania Trump remains in New York, away from official First Lady business and unable to turn that into the money-making bandwagon she hoped it would be. Her contributions to her husband’s campaign were minimal, and the few words she spoke were those of other women. Her life story could be used and co-opted accordingly, but never by her own hand. Memes were born of her blatant misery, and sympathetic headlines written on her gilded prison. She remains complicit, but so quietly that it’s easy to overlook. Ultimately, she is less a person and more an abstract: An aesthetically acceptable blank slate for ideas and perceptions to be projected upon. She need not say a word in public, but she will do her job for Trump, and that’s all the administration will ever demand of the Trump Women.