Girl Power (™)
Ivanka Is Where Feminism Goes to Die
Trump’s ‘girl power’ photo-ops are a trendy accessory at odds with her father’s policies—but that’s what happens when we treat feminism like trickle-down empowerment.
Since her father was sworn in as president of the United States, Ivanka Trump has made it her mission to do the feminist version of having her cake and eating it, too.
She’s apolitical, for the sake of her lifestyle brand, but very political, for the sake of her public image in the press. She is not taking an official role in the administration, but she is extremely involved in the goings on of the administration. She is not the functional first lady, except she is, a little bit. Ivanka is the sound of one hand clapping.
Even apart from her beauty pageant locker room-strolling father, Ivanka does a perfectly adequate job implicating herself as a hypocrite on her own. Back in December, my colleague Lizzie Crocker called Trump a “soft-focus feminist” engaged in a delicate balancing act between expressing allegiance to an ideology and actually doing anything concrete to realize that ideology. Crocker wondered what would happen to Ivanka as she moved from campaign to West Wing, if she could maintain her contrived blandness in the face of real adversity.
It appears that, at least thus far, Ivanka is trying to carry on as normal as the world spins into chaos around her. Her social media presence is so divorced from the Washington pandemonium her father has authored that it seems like she might be Instagramming from an alternate universe. She is Scarlett O’Hara dressed in drapes.
Ivanka Trump wants the public to buy her being both feminist and not a feminist at once; she is Schrödinger’s feminist. She poses for girl power photo-ops, but doesn’t speak up for the women’s health care that’s on the chopping block in the potential ACA repeal. Her brand’s tagline is Women Who Work, but she doesn’t fight for a living wage for all female workers and manufactures her clothing overseas in countries where workers are often mistreated. She’s proud to be a wife and mother, but hasn’t made a peep about this country’s disgraceful maternal mortality rate, especially among women of color. Ivanka, an obvious beneficiary of the work of feminists, does little to actually help the sort of women who would have no reason or means to purchase Ivanka Trump-branded pumps and pencil skirts. The child leave policy she’s rumored to be circulating on Capitol Hill is little more than an opt-in tax break for businesses, with benefits that would go primarily to women earning more than $100,000 per year. Ivanka may be empowered, but she is not empowering. She is as feminist in practice as a chubby 42-year-old man wearing a Blackhawks jersey is Jonathan Toews.
On one hand, Ivanka’s duality is incredibly frustrating to women who think and opine about feminism and who are doing it right for a living. At The Guardian, Jessica Valenti writes that Ivanka’s feminism is just a “salve” designed to cool the sting of Donald Trump’s piping hot misogyny on a public yearning to be soothed. Over at BuzzFeed, Anne Helen Peterson takes a deep dive into Ivanka’s aesthetics-reliant presence and how it serves to protect the future of her brand from the damage her association with her father’s pussy-grabbing, parent-deporting, toilet-tweeting can do. Last month in The New York Times, Jill Filipovic called out Ivanka’s “fake feminism,” writing that Trump’s eldest daughter is “a kind of post-feminist huckster, selling us traditional femininity and support of male power wrapped up in a feminist bow.” Ivanka Trump drives people who have actually done some thinking about feminism absolutely nuts.
But Ivanka’s advocacy-as-trendy-accessory isn’t exactly an outlier at this moment in American culture. “Feminism” the label has long been morphing from an ideology to something that can be worn to parties. Last April, Jia Tolentino wrote in The New York Times that modern “empowerment” was “neither practice nor praxis, nor really theory, but a glossy, dizzying product instead,” a word that was now associated primarily with women’s purchases. Feminist could be a cool new type of makeup containing chemicals associated with breast cancer, or a just-for-women replica NFL jersey boosting a team that had tried to cover up the crimes of a domestic abuser.
Others have noticed the straining seams in feminism’s big tent. Jessa Crispin’s new book, Why I Am Not A Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto, paints “empowerment feminism” as an outcropping of the narcissism that has come to dominate the movement in a way that’s isolating and thus counterproductive. The meaning of feminism is everything, and therefore, nothing. Feminism is whatever makes you feel good about your choices, ladies. That’s why it’s become so palatable for image-conscious celebrities.
That’s why Ivanka Trump was able to glom onto it so easily.
Over the last 10 years or so, it’s become de rigeur for women’s magazine profilers to ask their celebrity subjects to pick a side in the great label battle with the dreaded question “Are you a feminist?” Of course, men who haven’t already made a big show of their allyship are rarely asked that question, and starlets with any savvy knew there was only one socially acceptable answer, even if they weren’t positive of the meaning beyond what they’d been sold in Dove ads. Embrace being feminist, and they were yaas kweened like Taylor Swift. Reject it, and they were beneficiaries of the work of others without acknowledging the necessity of that work like Kaley Cuoco. If you said you were a feminist, you were. The word could mean anything you wanted it to mean, as long as everybody felt beautiful.
Ivanka Trump has carefully avoided using the term “feminist” to describe herself; she’s let others fight about that for her. But if she’s not a self-proclaimed celebrity feminist, she sure acts like one. Her time as a non-official-but-kind-of-official-seeming part of Donald Trump’s White House has seen her engaging in the sort of amorphous “advocacy” for women and girls that has amounted to little more than vaguely optimistic marketing slogans and staged appearances. But she’s not the first celebrity to pretend to care about something for the good press. She is a shiny candy shell surrounding what little substance commercialized feminism has left for women.
Modern pop feminism means that the inconveniences of rich and privileged women are discussed at the expense of the life-or-death situations faced by poor women. It means pundits hem and haw about a dumb joke some meathead told about Kellyanne Conway sitting on her knees on a couch rather than the abject cruelty of splitting up families through Trump-championed deportation or unnecessary incarceration. It’s Ivanka Trump tweeting about self-pampering when kids in Flint still can’t drink the water. It’s a celebrity clapping back against The Haters on Instagram when there are thousands and thousands of more important things to pay attention to. It’s the conflation of “feeling good about oneself” with “meaningful advocacy for equality.” It’s trickle-down feminism, and it works about as well as trickle-down economics.
Ivanka did not occur in a vacuum. She clearly draws her inspiration from other prominent pop-feminist voices, many of whom she follows on her well-cultivated Instagram account. Take, for example, many of the accounts she follows, like The Clinton Global Initiative (hm), Lena Dunham’s LennyLetter (which published a piece by Dunham about the trauma of Donald Trump’s victory), Senator Kirsten Gillibrand (the only Senate Democrat to vote against all of Trump’s appointments), former Clinton aide Audrey Gelman, Amy Schumer (who has openly mocked Donald Trump voters as suckers), former Cosmopolitan EIC Joanna Coles, Katy Perry (Hillary Clinton surrogate), Emma Watson (vocally anti-Donald Trump), and Sophia Bush (who once called Ivanka’s father a “lunatic”). Ivanka’s Instagram follows are, at best, a curated list of people she’s desperate to hang out with at parties (which must be demoralizing, considering how many of them openly dislike her father. That’s probably why she follows 22 separate Ivanka Trump fan accounts). At worst, who Ivanka sees as her peers is an indicator that no matter what causes celebrities fight for publicly, advocacy is an act of leisure. A hobby. A “like.”
If President Trump accomplishes nothing else, at least he will bring a merciful end to this limp iteration of feminism. He will draw into relief the silliness of words without actions, of the movement’s inability to prioritize, of women’s rights work that doesn’t focus on promoting the welfare of all women, not just the ones lucky enough to be born to or married to real estate magnates, or Hollywood actresses. Ivanka’s brand of stiletto advocacy already seems passe, but in 25 years, her ideological aesthetic and the girl power marketing garbage that led to it will seem startlingly outdated and ignorant, like the image of Betty Draper smoking a pre-bed cigarette as she balances a glass of red wine on her pregnant stomach.
In that way, maybe Ivanka Trump isn’t a faux feminist at all. She’s simply the logical, ridiculous dead-end point of Feminism(™) the marketing tool, Feminism the sorority, Feminism the trend. She embodies all of the reasons people who care about women should be taking a step back right now and asking themselves if this is the best way to go about achieving results, about how things need to change. Feminism cannot be both meaningful and meaningless. And Ivanka can’t, either.