Including some excellent tips on how to know when you’ve already lost the moral high ground.
Photo: Mike Licht, CC BY 2.0
Let me start this post by saying that I have legitimately no idea (besides retrograde stereotypes) why Melania Trump is with Donald Trump. Melania is a smart, gorgeous woman who is married to angry troll of a meatsack who happens to hate immigrants (like Melania). It just makes no sense. But that doesn’t mean that I believe that Melania Trump should be slut-shamed in the name of defeating her rotting carrot of a husband.
Recently, the “conservative anti-Trump SuperPAC Make America Awesome” (which…. That’s a phrase. That I just had to write.) targeted women in Utah with an advertisement featuring a photo of Melania from a 2000 GQ profile in which she poses nude on top of a fur. The meme-style ad reads, “Meet Melania Trump. Your next first lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.” Ironically, when I first saw the meme I thought that it was actually a bro-tastic pro-Trump ad extolling the virtues of a super-hot first lady. (I think this means that Make America Awesome did not totally think through its messaging.) Instead, the advertisement seems to be playing on our age old favorite terrible thing, the virgin/whore dichotomy. The women targeted are ostensibly meant to clutch their pearls and demand how this strumpet could possibly be our classy, elegant first lady? The shame of it all.
Of course, the creator of the ad claims that is not what she was trying to do. The head of Make America Awesome, Liz Mair, claims that she was definitely, totally not trying to slut-shame Melania (she doesn’t even like the word slut, okay everyone?) In her own crazy, crazy words:
“The fact is, the image in the ad — for which Melania Trump apparently willingly posed and has long been widely available online — isn’t objectionable because she’s nude or because it implies she’s ‘promiscuous’ (which, by the way, it doesn’t, though it does suggest she may have bigger hands than Donald),” Mair wrote in an email. “It’s objectionable because in typical porn/porn-lite fashion, it features her handcuffed to a briefcase, looking vulnerable and sends an implicit message of female subservience, as a lot of photos of tethered, naked women produced for male titillation and consumption do. And Mormon women don’t much like that.“
….Kay. Really good try? A couple things, though:
To start with, the emphasis on the photo being something that Melania “willingly posed for” and which has been “widely available online” is a pretty shady excuse for the use of the image. Just because Melania Trump willingly posed nude for one context (a magazine spread) doesn’t mean that it’s totally okay to repurpose the image in this way. Strangely enough, a woman can agree to posing nude and still want some say in how her image is used. It’s like she’s a person with agency, or something. Second of all, this image is not even a little bit about the fact that Melania Trump is “looking vulnerable” and is sending “an implicit message of female subservience” because she is “handcuffed to a briefcase.” Raise your hand if you even noticed that she was handcuffed to a briefcase when you first saw the image. (My hand did not go up.) The text of the ad conveniently covers most of the cuff on her wrist, and the fur covers most of the chain. So while I’m not totally thrilled that Melania is handcuffed to a briefcase in the picture, I don’t think that’s really the first reaction that the ad meant me to have.
Instead, as Christina Cauterucci points out, the ad is supposed to make Mormons, and specifically Mormon women, recoil from the sheer sexuality and immodesty on display: “Mormons disavow pornography and revealing clothing; Mair’s ad implies that Melania is an immoral, hypersexual woman with no modesty who’d embarrass America by association.” The ad is meant to make the viewer think that Melania is as much of a political poison pill as her tangerine-tinted spouse. If the ad was supposed to be about Melania’s vulnerability and the way she is treated by her husband, then the tag for the ad would not be “Meet Melania Trump. Your next first lady.” It would maybe, I don’t know, mention something about how Melania should not be handcuffed to a briefcase?
Hilariously, Liz Mair does not seem to be able to put the shovel down and stop digging. She responded to Cauterucci with the following:
“I’m excited to see self-described progressives and feminists doing the bidding of the Trump campaign,” Mair wrote me in an email. “If I’d known this ad was going to create the furor it has, I wouldn’t have pulled the plug on two other, much more controversial ads we were considering in an effort to avoid rocking the boat too much. But, if people are determined to have a cow about this because of their own internal, unaddressed, throwback attitudes to what nudity on the part of a pretty lady connotes without literally looking at the broader picture, I may just go the whole hog and run those other ads, too. … I want to beat Donald Trump, who by the way has zero problem with attacking women who appear scantily-clad in men’s magazines.”
… A couple things again. First of all, if you are defending your actions with “well Donald Trump does it too” then you have already lost the moral high ground. If you are defending your actions with “I could have done this totally worse thing, why are you freaking out” then you have already lost the moral high ground. If you are defending yourself by claiming that anyone who disagrees with your position in the slightest way is a shill for your (shared) opponent, you have already lost the moral high ground.
The only point where Mair and I agree is that people have “internal, unaddressed throwback attitudes to what nudity on the part of a pretty lady connotes,” but the difference is that Mair is capitalizing on those attitudes rather than challenging them. She is not celebrating Melania’s decision to embrace her body. She is cynically exploiting prejudices to score political points.
Which, when you think about it, really just makes her about the same as Donald Trump.
Elle Irise is a regular contributor to This Week In Tomorrow. When she’s not pointing out that slut-shaming isn’t, in fact, progressive and feminist, she studies gender in popular culture.