Imagine the scene: President Bartlett walks out of the Oval Office, winks at his Press Secretary C. J. Craig and, with a smile, says, “I just love watching you handle the press.” Jed then walks over to a young intern, pats her on the head, looks her up and down, and just walks away. The opening credits rolls and another Sorkin masterpiece begins. Such a scene, of course, never occurred in the iconic television series, The West Wing, nor should it have ever been considered. For many Americans, the Presidency is more than an office, it is a symbol that embodies the mythos that constitutes the social fabric we call “America”. A fictional president, of course, is an animated caricature of that very mythos. He or she (and we’ve had both on screen) is a walking and talking microcosm of what America is supposed to be and, for many Americans, what America existentially always has been and always will be.
That mythic role, however, has been severely challenged since January 20, 2017. The current holder of the Oval Office continues to break all the rules, not chipping away at the mythos of the Presidency, but rather taking a sledge hammer to it. One arena of public discourse where such hammering has continued to take place is in the realm of gender politics. Recently, Donald Trump has taken actions that reinforce for many the conviction that this president is sexist. Like many, I’ve become increasingly concerned over President Trump’s alleged sexism and, more broadly, the way that women are being portrayed, treated, dismissed, objectified, and eventually politicized by patriarchal cultures in America. But does the charge of sexism simply stop there? In this essay, I want to briefly comment on some of the cultural dynamics surrounding gender politics that underlie much of what we are seeing, specifically with regard to the concept of body.
Recently, as reported in various media outlets, President Trump attacked (in his usual, childish manner using Twitter) Mika Brezinski and, earlier, had made what some are seeing as a sexist compliment to Caitriona Perry in the Oval Office. In both cases, Trump focused on the bodies of these two media professionals, offering an awkward and inappropriately timed compliment to one and an equally inappropriate and immature insult to the other. While finding someone attractive or unattractive is not a moral failing, in my opinion at least, nor is offering a compliment to someone, there are appropriate and inappropriate contexts for such actions—often depending on the setting, the kind of relationship between the two individuals, and a consensual framework for their interactions (i.e., does the person welcome the focus on her body? if not, then don’t go there—not that complicated).
Bodies are important, of course. They are not simply clothes we wear or shells we inhabit. Rather, as scholars continually demonstrate, bodies are sites where power dynamics are played out between social actors (both acts of empowerment and disempowerment, along with degrees of obfuscation and silencing). Women’s bodies have been sites for public discourse, be that debates over morality, xenophobia, division of labor (especially in public and private spheres), religion, politics, or ethnic conflict. A woman’s body is often rendered nothing more than a ripped page upon which (often male) social actors compose the scripts that they see as socially normative. Rarely are those women afforded a voice in those debates and often when they do speak they are silenced by the scripting of their bodies.
With these insights in mind—evoking what Judith Butler calls gender performativity—here are a few observations on President Trump’s recent comments that I want to explore.
(1) The comments are about bodies, not persons let alone persons with bodies—just bodies. This focus is a power move, to situate the women within a specific role that the (male) social actor benefits from. Objectification becomes an act of disempowerment of one social actor for the empowerment of another social actor. But reducing a person to a body, the center of power shifts from the one being viewed to the one doing the viewing.
(2) The setting is a professional one. These two individuals are “on the job”, interacting with President Trump in a professional context as media representatives. By shifting the “gaze” to the bodily, Trump de facto negates for both women the status of “professional”. Rather, they are categorically transformed into objects for the professional (= male) gaze rather than as colleagues to be taken seriously. Their roles are redefined and their place in the professional or public sphere is reduced to either looking pretty or being bitchy.
(3) Trump’s comments are innocuous on the surface, yet viciously demeaning under the surface. To say, “she has a pretty smile” is not overtly sexist or inappropriate (or at least it doesn’t have to be). Many would welcome such a compliment. Many have defended Trump online along this very line of thought. And taking a potshot at an opponent—however immature and “un-presidential” that potshot may appear—is not necessarily sexist, even if it is vulgar and distasteful. But when we look closely at what he says, and situate those comments within the broader constellation of what he has said about women over the years, especially statements that became more widely known during the election, what appears innocuous becomes dangerously offensive.
Again, note the focus on the “body” of Caitriona Perry. She “smiles”; looks pretty; isn’t that nice. In this political discourse, she does not have a body, she is a body. Yet a particular kind of body, with cultural codes embedded on it for all to see. Even more overt is the discursive treatment of the “body” of Mika Brezinski in the President’s tweet: “bleeding badly from a face-lift”. Whereas the attack on Joe Scarborough stops at a mental attack, the “low IQ Crazy Mika” leads into a bodily attack on Brezinski. To my knowledge, Scarborough has not been attacked re: his body by Trump. As anyone who has studied gender constructions since the Enlightenment will recognize, this rhetoric evokes the rational/non-rational binary of the male/female; a binary that has been used for years to delegitimatize the voice of women in public discourse (does anyone remember the women’s suffrage movement of the 19th and early 20th century?). By referring to Scarborough as “Crazy Joe”, Trump effectively challenges Scarborough’s masculine quality of being rationale. He’s not a “real man” because he’s “crazy”. Scarborough lacks the quintessential masculine characteristic: Reason.
Yet, by extending that very criticism to Brezinski’s body, the president not only removes her from the public (“male”) setting (i.e., she lacks manliness due to being an irrational and stupid creature), he ends by re-situating her as the bodily object of the male gaze. She ceases to be an active social agent and, instead, is positioned as a passive receptacle of imparted virtue/vice. An irrational idiot can still be an active agent, but a objectified thing is passive, lacking agency let alone the right to agency. Yet, unlike his “nice smile” observation of Perry, an observation that also silences her by defining here as bodily object, his insult to Brezinski denies her even “womanly” value as a pleasant thing for men. Trump verbally disfigures her so that she is neither masculine nor feminine; through this tweet, she is rendered less than even an objectified thing (to evoke French philosopher Simone Weil’s discussion of “thingification”). She’s rendered, to allude to Michel Foucault’s theory of monstrosity, as nothing more than a monster or freak in the public sphere, not really belonging within the established frameworks of “the normal”, whereas Perry is “put in her place” where she best can serve male interests: as a pretty little thing. Both acts are dehumanizing power plays that stratify gender roles where value rests with a person properly playing out their assigned place on the gendered social ladder. Yet at first glance such acts seem playful and harmless. They are phrases draw from the reservoir of everyday human interactions. It is only when we look below the surface that we realize what is truly happening.
(4) This style of speech, however, is typical of Trump. Throughout the election cycle, he made highly offensive and even dangerous comments (e.g., calling on Second Amendment supporters to deal with Clinton if she were elected). He always stops short of actually committing himself to openly stating what he, effectively, does end up stating. This gives him deniability in the eyes of his supporters and, for his detractors, it makes it difficult to “pin him down” on his comments without such criticism seeming like “crazy left-wing” hyperbole. Again, this is a rhetorical act of legitimating a social actor (in this case Trump) by establishing a “distance” between what is said and what is heard or communicated. It allows him to demean women, to discursively locate them within sexist and patriarchal frameworks (especially when situating women within professional contexts), but with the protection of “it’s just locker room talk” or we just misinterpreted what he really said; after all, what’s wrong with insulting your opponent (especially if she’s been vehemently critical of you) or in saying you like someone’s smile (especially when that adds to a photo op)? In following Trump over the past year, I have seen a plethora of such rhetorical moves made about women (and other groups of people), each instance innocuous on its own perhaps, but cumulatively demonstrating a very disturbing pattern.
(5) Despite all I’ve written above, and I do agree with what I’ve said, I’m also concerned that Trump’s sexist bravado, if we can call it that, may be a means to another end. Are we being distracted, our eyes averted from other serious and dangerous policies being pursued by this administration? Is this passive-aggressive sexism not only about “putting women in their place”, but also a way to advance another agenda beyond our current view? Does sexist discourse by political figures attempt also to “put the public in its place”? I’m not sure. Perhaps. I certainly don’t want to engage speculative conspiracy theories (I’ve never been a fan of them) or to impute motive to those I’m analyzing. But I do know that this treatment of women has offended, and continues to offend me as I follow this presidency. As with racism, xenophobia, classism, and isolationism (or perhaps unilateral foreign policy), I am concerned that our society—or at least our public and political social spheres—is increasing becoming misogynist and myopic; that women’s bodies, to return to the opening of this essay, are becoming sites that not only are being used to silence and dehumanize women (especially within professional settings), but also to empower those who gain from such dehumanization.
To draw a comparison, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, when asked about the equal inclusion of women in his cabinet, simply said, “Because it’s 2015.” Alas, south of the border, it seems that the dehumanization of professional women by President Trump could be similarly, yet very differently summed up: “Because it’s 2017”.