Last week while Donald Trump was alienating Germany, pissing off Great Britain, shoving the Montenegro prime minister at NATO, and continuing his ongoing love affair with Russia, sort-of-First Lady Melania and de facto First Lady/First Daughter Ivanka “Champagne Popsicles” Trump were in Saudi Arabia “showing the world what feminine power looks like.” Or at least that is what Washington Post’s conservative columnist Kathleen Parker would have us believe.
Parker, who demonstrates neither an understanding of nor a commitment to the real meaning and work of feminism, or the nuances of intercultural (and, in this case, interracial) diplomatic dynamics, uses the moment to rationalize her support of Team Trump while making it look like something more quote-unquote progressive.
Her redemptive narrative begins by reinforcing white femininity as the “gold standard” of beauty and desirability: “All politics aside, Melania and Ivanka Trump stood as beacons of light in a part of the world that remains cloaked in the darkness of religious fundamentalism and oppression. Preternaturally beautiful, they seemed to glide as apparitions above the sea of dark suits and white robes and must have struck fear in the hearts of men whose culture demands that women be publicly invisible.”
*Insert vomit emoji here.*
Check the barely coded language: Parker is elevating Melania and Ivanka not only as “beacons of light” in a nation “cloaked in the darkness of religious fundamentalism and oppression,” but she’s highlighting their “preternatural beauty,” and describing them as gliding ghosts who terrified the patriarchal Arabs.
The messages are unmistakable: Beauty equals whiteness. Fashion equals whiteness plus wealth as seen through a narrow Eurocentric lens. High style equals power. And modernity is defined through Western white wealth. So naturally those backward dark-skinned women of the Middle East would be inspired by the Trump women who represent what the whole world really wants to be.
Beyond their glamorous clothing and their flowing hair, what does make Melania and Ivanka “beacons of light?” Well:
1. They are not Donald Trump
2. They embody the “classic” beauty standards of white supremacy
3. They embody freedom as defined by American exceptionalism
4. The presumption that the Middle East is “darkness,” needing illumination from the light coming in the form of white “feminism” bought and sold with money made at the expense of people of color.
To Parker, feminism is beauty, and beauty is a virtue that belongs to white women. She sees in glamour a transformative power; Ivanka and Melania personify that glamour, and because Muslim women allegedly adore glamour, there is tremendous potential to reach them. As Parker states, “Muslim women, while respecting their religion, also love glamour. You can be sure they were studying—and appreciating—Melania and Ivanka … They represented the American woman with appropriateness, elegance and style.” Forget #ArabSpring, the numerous Muslim feminists fighting daily struggles for equality and justice, Melania and her sidekick are here to save their oppressed sisters.
Parker sees the Trump women as an antidote to Trump’s legendary crassness and political toxicity. “I propose a toast to America’s first ladies for showing the world that despite our coarse, ham-fisted president, we have not completely forsaken ‘class’,” she writes. Defining “class” as being white and rich, and wearing designer clothes, her embrace of hyper-materialism embodies our capitalist ethos. Her embrace of a blatantly colonial white savior narrative seems to operate from the presumption that those allegedly ignorant women in Saudi Arabia—who cover their heads, who live in “darkness,” who aren’t allowed to drive or attend a Toby Keith concert—are marching on their pathway to freedom. Their dreams can potentially become true because Melania and Ivanka blessed them with their presence. They are learning how to be better people, and improved versions of womanhood by simply watching Melania and Ivanka Trump. And, if we are to believe Parker, the Trump women are also sources of hope, moderating forces to political extremism, and breaths of fresh air to counter the toxic hatred that defines Trump himself and his entire administration.
The celebration of this propagandist “feminist” power of Melania and Ivanka is about exonerating them and American white women for the blood on their hands. Trump’s place in the White House and his ability to cause damage to so many is because of white women—not only his defenders and surrogates (Melania and Ivanka, Kellyanne Conway, Betsy DeVos, e.g.), but those who actually voted for him.
This messaging is becoming a cover to divorce Melania and Ivanka from Donald, as if they aren’t part of both of his administration and his family; as if they can possibly be considered in a separate context. They’re being used by Parker and other media to normalize “45” and to pardon white women from toxic white male patriarchy and right-wing racism. “There is little doubt both women made a lasting impression on Saudi women, who would have recognized and identified with their feminine power,” writes Parker. “Wordlessly, they projected strength, intelligence, grace—and a timeless wisdom that all women share.”
That line made me roll my eyes so hard that I saw my brain. What Parker really means is: “Yes, most of us white women voted for Trump but don’t worry, we are controlling him with our powers of femininity as we represent and protect the nation and lift up girls. And don’t worry about those poor backward oppressed Middle Eastern women—we are showing them what modern womanhood looks like. Then they’ll know what to aspire to.”
Embodying a larger narrative, Parker is promoting an entire feminist angle that reflects the nature of white Western feminism that embraces style over substance and celebrates the symbolic as a substitute for real progress and equality. Women of color aren’t even considered in this equation, except as exploited workers or sub-standard representations of non-western gender oppression.
Had this been First Lady and President Obama, people would not only have criticized her, but challenged his ability to lead the nation if he couldn’t even control his wife—and we’d have seen the narratives that play on the notion of controlling “angry” Black women.
Recall the scrutiny over whether Gabby Douglas put her hand over her heart or whether Serena Williams or Simone Biles chose to smile on a national stage—the outrage machine went into overdrive. But those clips that portray an irate Melania as she slaps her husband’s hand away when he reaches for hers are being celebrated by folks on both the left and the right. In fact, everyone appears ready to celebrate Melania’s peevish sour face and hand gesture as an act of feminist resistance against the patriarchy.
But nobody has acknowledged the anger behind this body language or the dysfunctional relationship that caused it. Nobody referenced Trump’s failures as a husband and a father. Because this would spotlight the failure and fragility of white masculinity and, by extension, white supremacy.
As long as Ivanka smiles, wears a pretty white dress and invokes words like “empowerment” while helping girls secure their dreams, you can give life to policies that disempower women and girls around the globe.
Never mind, Ivanka’s exploitation of Chinese women. The article, “Chinese Workers at Factory for Ivanka Trump's Clothing Maker Earn About $62 a Week,” in the April 25, 2017 issue of Time magazine, reports that a watchdog group “found the Chinese knitting factory used by a company that makes clothing for Ivanka Trumps brand,” pays workers about $62 for 60-hour weeks. Her company also “violated two dozen standards set by the U.N. International Labor Organization, the Washington Post reports.”
An audit of the factory contracted by G-III Apparel Group, the manufacturing partner for Ivanka’s brand, found that high turnover among workers, who were paid at or below China’s minimum age while working excessive hours without legally mandated pensions, medical or housing benefits and just five days of paid leave per year.
How can you be a “beacon of light” when your clothes are covered in blood and exploitation? Melania’s and Ivanka’s hands are dirty whether we’re talking about “45” or considering their clothing choices.
Never mind the devastation that are Trump’s policies which threaten all too many, most notably people of color, the poor, youth, elderly, and the already vulnerable both inside and outside the United States.
Parker wants us to be blinded by the “light” of Melania’s and Ivanka’s looks and posture as to ignore the ways in which we’re being attacked by our federal government. “Don’t look over there at women and girls who no longer have access to health care. Don’t mind those girls and women suffering while sewing our fancy dresses. Don’t acknowledge how Trump’s policies are turning back time and hurting women. Look away from the 100 ways his policies are eroding family economic security, putting children at risk, attacking reproductive rights, undermining women’s legal rights; weakening protections against gender-based violence, sabotaging women’s leadership, and guaranteeing suffering, death and disaster by slashing health benefits. Melania’s and Ivanka’s good looks, high fashion and displays of western white womanhood are all that matters.
In other words, the celebration of these women as white women super heroes battling global patriarchy one smile at a time represents the ultimate “weapon of mass distraction.” Don't mind those daughters and sons whose mothers have been locked up because of what Rashad Robinson describes as the ongoing War on Drugs 2.0 waged by “Confederate Jeff” Sessions. Don’t mind those whose houses have been destroyed, who don’t have access to non-toxic water, whose health will receive no care, and whose educational future is being shaped by Betsy Devoid. Focus on these lovely “beacons of light” because the side of toxins will be much easier is to swallow.
In the sea of arrogant American opinions, Parker’s piece wins as a self-serving, tone-deaf, white privilege prize. One has to wonder if she ever actually spoken to a girl or a woman from Saudi Arabia. It is hard to imagine if she even pondered how a Saudi woman might respond to her suggestions that Melania and Ivanka make good role models. This is not only offensive, but also ludicrous. The Trump women don’t even make good role models for American girls and women. They are an international disgrace and the essence of mediocrity paraded as exceptional and hoisted onto a pedestal to be admired and privileged and admired again.
Parker should have saved all of us the time and trouble and simply written what she truly meant to say: Thank the blue-eyed lord the White House is white again (regardless of the fact that the current president is a sexist, racist lying incompetent who hasn’t mastered Twitter, let alone foreign policy.) His wife and daughter are rich and white and skinny and decked out in designer clothes. What more could anyone want? Their refusal to oblige polite requests to cover their heads in Saudi Arabia, much less challenge the misogynist, racist, and vile threat to all women they call family, proves once again that the illusion of ever-confident white womanhood will once again save the world.