Ah, the couch crouch! You know — the photo of Trump propagandist Kellyanne Conway kneeling on a sofa in the Oval Office, intent on whatever photo she was taking with her smartphone.
People lost their minds over it, inveighing about her lack of manners and/or claiming she violated the inner sanctum of power. With all the hysteria over it, it was honestly a little hard to tell which. I mention the couch crouch myself, not because it is independently significant, but because the reaction to it is revelatory.
America, it is 2017. And we’re still sexist.
You see, Conway wasn’t being blasted from all quarters because she for a moment forgot herself and hopped onto a sofa. Conway caught the internet’s guff because, in essence, she wasn’t being ladylike.
Cedric Richard, a Louisiana Democrat, said “she looked kind of familiar there in that position there,” and added an oblique reference to the Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky sex scandal in the 1990s. Richard’s was merely the most prominent voice offering the same basic attack, however. I saw other references along the lines of “woman on her knees” and the plain meaning. I saw other comments that took Conway to task over her looks. I have, myself, branded her a caustic “hag,” even though I thought the furor over her pose on the couch was stupid.
Trashing a woman’s appearance, or coming up with some version of “she’s a whore” to discredit her is nothing more than plain, old-fashioned misogyny. It spares the critic from actually disputing the woman’s ideas, words and meaningful conduct. It is convenient. And it tends to work.
In Conway’s case, the petty satisfaction of calling her whorish, ugly, or old, also can shift the focus from her ideas, words and meaningful conduct. Like a number of men in the administration, Kellyanne Conway is an opportunistic prevaricator who is enabling a dangerous autocrat. It doesn’t matter what sex she is, or what she looks like: she shills for Donald Trump, an unhinged, unqualified egomaniac whose conduct grows more alarming by the day. Pointing that out is not sexist. It is not flattering, but it is based on what she does, not on her anatomy.
Targeting a woman’s sex or appearance to discredit her is nothing new, and Conway isn’t alone among conservative- supporting women to be so targeted.
While I’m no fan of her husband, the constant barrage of sexism directed toward Melania Trump is appalling. It is true that she chose to pose nude and presumably collected money and fame for doing so. It is true that she became the third wife of an adulterer. A role model, she is not — particularly when attorneys indicated in a revived lawsuit she’d planned to capitalize on being “the most photographed woman in the world,” and when she insists on living in her husband’s golden tower at our expense (at least until June).
But she’s not your prop for moral outrage against Donald Trump and the spineless Congress that enables him, either. I have seen a number of comments on a number of sites use Melania’s dirty pictures as a means of discrediting Donald — when Donald discredits himself, why do that? Answer: A woman is a convenient target, especially if she steps outside the box into which “correct” female behavior has been placed.
Some targeting I’ve seen goes well beyond a crass joke or a jaundiced eye toward her past: On one very liberal site, a commentator called for criminal, sexual violence against Mrs. Trump. There’s no room for debate here: That is sexist, wildly inappropriate, unacceptable and immoral. (The site moderator, once informed, removed the comment and the entire thread that had generated it.)
It would be one thing to bring up Melania Trump’s modeling career if she were stepping up to speak of family values and lecturing about a woman’s traditional “place.” But she isn’t. Instead, people bring it up in the context of Michelle Obama, and how she was raked over the coals for once wearing a sleeveless dress. “Oh sure,” the basic complaint goes. “Lose your mind over Michelle’s arms, but bat not an eye at Melania’s nudity. Hypocrisy!” they cry.
Irony, say I. Because if Melania Trump were a liberal woman, or married to a Democratic president, some people who are in such a high dudgeon about her photographs now might defend them as female empowerment and sexual freedom, or excuse them as being “part of her past” and label criticism as pathetic.
But I see different standards being applied to conservative women. Don’t misunderstand me here: I am not saying that liberal women do not experience sexism. They do, and a very good example of such a person recently lost a presidential election to a madman, in part, because the standards for her were set much higher than they were for him. I just see a fair amount of sexist commentary thrown toward conservative women from people who probably pride themselves on being open-minded, tolerant, and feminist. Let a woman on the “other side” annoy them, though, and they resort to timeless misogyny.
Example: Bristol Palin. The young woman is Sarah Palin’s daughter and appears to be a chip off the block, politically. I do not find much merit in either Palin’s positions on a number of topics; I find the mother almost comically ignorant and shudder to think of her in a position of power. I can’t help, but notice, though, the response the daughter gets every time she sounds forth with an opinion: “Close your legs!” (An actual, verbatim, and frequently repeated comment.)
Although she is now married, Bristol Palin had two children out of wedlock, you see. Add to that her improbable position as an abstinence advocate, and, poof! Instant, rock-solid reason to discredit everything she has to say, ever, even if it’s “I like puppies.” Forgive me for thinking that her sex life is fair game only when she is discussing abstinence and/or telling other women how to behave sexually.
This is all tiresome — as well as unnecessary.
Because, if a woman is enabling an autocrat, you can say: “She is enabling an autocrat.” If you think Republicans are hypocritical for criticizing Michelle Obama’s sleeveless dress while they ignore past nude pics of Melania Trump, you can say: “Republicans are hypocritical about this.” Don’t like Bristol Palin’s politics? Criticize her politics. Think her mom lacks intelligence? Say so, rather than sneering “Caribou Barbie” or other misogynistic nicknames that associate her lack of brain power with her looks, as though the two had anything to do with each other.
In none of these situations is it necessary to bring up a woman’s looks, a woman’s age, another woman, a woman’s sexual history, or (ahem, self), her wrinkled visage. You’ll notice I am not calling on anyone to excuse these women’s conduct — Conway lies; she can be called a liar. Sarah Palin can be called unintelligent because her record is replete with unintelligent (even unintelligible) statements. But there is a line to be drawn when valid criticism gives way to personal attacks arising from the sex of the person being criticized.
Sexism does not cease being sexism just because it’s directed toward a woman with whom you disagree or dislike. Resorting to sexist insults is lazy thinking — and it gives sexism staying power. Again, it is 2017. Enough.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.