These things are not mutually exclusive.
I want to show you two pictures – ones you may have seen recently – and ask you a simple question: what is being communicated? What are the subject, the photographer and the publisher saying to you?
I’m not going to snark here and I’m not going to tell you what you should think. I am going to suggest that we should consider the embedded messages seriously as we observe the ongoing feud between GOP presidential frontrunner Donald Trump and the subject of these photographs, FOX News’s Megyn Kelly.
By now you know that in a Republican debate not long ago Kelly, acting as moderator, asked Trump a very pointed question about his apparent sexism, and Trump did not take it well. Here’s the question:
“Mr. Trump, one of the things people love about you is you speak your mind and you don’t use a politician’s filter. However, that is not without its downsides, in particular, when it comes to women. You’ve called women you don’t like ‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs’ and ‘disgusting animals.’ …
Your Twitter account has several disparaging comments about women’s looks. You once told a contestant on ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ it would be a pretty picture to see her on her knees.
Does that sound to you like the temperament of a man we should elect as president, and how will you answer the charge from Hillary Clinton, who was likely to be the Democratic nominee, that you are part of the war on women?”
A more apt question may never have posed in a political debate at any level. As Janell Ross notes in Thursday’s Post, “[Trump has] gone on-record and on-camera with comments aimed at women that seem, time and time again, to center on their appearance — or whether their combined appearance and behavior comport with his standards. Again, that’s not really a matter of debate.”
No, it certainly isn’t. Even when he’s trying to make nice, Trump is a pig. Recall the kerfuffle with Carly Fiorina (and I can’t believe I’m quoting a People article here, but that’s what it’s come to):
Trump, 69, came under fire for taking aim at Fiorina’s looks during a recent interview with Rolling Stone. “Look at that face!” the magazine quoted Trump as saying. “Would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that, the face of our next president. I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posedta say bad things, but really, folks, come on. Are we serious?”
Trump took a lot of flak for that, and finally “apologized” to her in the next debate. What exactly did that apology look like?
I think she has a beautiful face, and she’s a beautiful woman.
Right. She’s okay with him because she’s pretty. Qualifications, credibility, validity as a person, it’s all a function of physical appearance.
I’m no fan of Carly Fiorina, but she was right when she took The Donald to the woodshed. I’m guessing every woman who might be reading this right now knows first-hand what it is to be reduced, no matter what the question, to the attractiveness of your face, the size of your breasts, the shape of your ass and even the thickness of your ankles.
Megyn Kelly’s question was dead on the money, period, end of debate. Sort of.
But What About Megyn?
Industrial-sized narcissists like Trump aren’t great at leaving things be, however, and so here we are. One of Trump’s Twitter followers posted this:
Trump, of course, retweeted it, thus rekindling the firestorm.
Here’s where it gets dicey, and if you’re an enlightened, progressive man in our society, more than a little uncomfortable. See, Kelly has every right to be the woman she wants to be. She has the right to communicate her sexuality as she sees fit. She has the right to pursue such career advancement opportunities as present themselves to her. And we – none of us – are justified in slut-shaming of the sort we so often see applied to women but never to men. That behavior is an unacceptable reinforcement of a repressive, exploitative patriarchy that we should have outgrown long ago.
The thing is, once you strip the caveman gender bias away from @gene70’s tweet, you find, underneath it all, an interesting question. The simple fact is that the two issues before us – the Trump/sexism issue and the Kelly/GQ issue – are not mutually exclusive. It is possible for a woman with credibility problems on the gender equity front to ask a penetrating question.
Sex & The Media
Back to those images: what do they communicate? Do they say “I am a serious journalist?” Do they say “I am a dedicated wife and mother?” Do they say “I’m a feminist and an intellectual?” Do they say “I am the model for what the 21st century American woman can and ought to be?” Or do they say … something else?
GQ is in the business of selling image and style and, let’s be honest, sex. They are not just a member of “the media” that’s guilty of “reinforcing negative stereotypes of women as sex objects,” they are among the elite of that media establishment. They’re major tastemakers, and are arguably even more corrosive to the battle for gender equality because of their respectability. See, images of women in media erode our sense of reality and promote a stylized ideal of beauty that not only isn’t attainable by actual women, it isn’t even attainable by the actual women posing for the photographs (pre-airbrushing and retouching).
I won’t lie. The Kelly photos are gorgeous. She is, by any physical standard, stunningly pretty. I have every kind of objection to her as a professional that it’s possible to have, but I also have a lizard brain that’s the result of millions of years of evolution aimed at honing sexual response.
GQ designed a spread for the back of my brain, not the front.
Some might contend that my entire critique here is, in itself, rooted in sexism and privilege. I don’t know. I don’t think so, but you may see it differently. I will say this much. My complaint about Kelly is no more or less than I’d offer against a male reporter who posed in a prominent publication in a man thong. It is no more or less than I’d offer against any male who was responsible for the publication of magazines or Web sites that, like GQ, helped propagate the kinds of objectification against women I’m talking about here. This is the best I can do, and I’ll have to live with it.
Let’s be clear about something: Megyn Kelly is neither a journalist nor a feminist. The fact that she asked an important question doesn’t mean that she hasn’t done yeoman’s work in service of the forces responsible for the stubborn persistence of institutional sexism in our society. As a result, it’s understandable how some of us might accuse her of hypocrisy.
Kudos for calling out a reprehensible swine, Megyn. Now would be a good time to ask yourself some hard questions, too.