Nancy Pelosi is an absolute powerhouse. Despite my criticisms of the Speaker of the House (and I have plenty), it would be foolish to deny that Pelosi will go down as one of the most consequential American politicians of our lifetime. What I don’t understand, however, is the kind of meme fervor Pelosi attracts when putting on sunglasses, clapping, or even standing up. The latter has captivated the internet ever since it discovered a photo that depicts her confronting President Trump during a contentious meeting on Wednesday.
I’m not dense. The optics of what makes this photo catnip for the Badass™ Woman™ This Is My Fight Song™ contingent is clear: A lone woman literally standing up for herself at a table full of men, notably in the face of Trump, a professional bully. But maybe I got yassss queen’d out three years ago, or I am not quite moved by a still of Pelosi simply doing her job, because I’m baffled by the sustained excitement that this photo is generating. The subsequent “time for an upgrade” tweet (now, mercifully, deleted) from Kamala Harris’s press secretary in which Harris was photoshopped into Trump’s place was bad enough, as were the attempts to turn the original image into Nancy versus white men, as if Nancy isn’t white herself. But I think I reached peak saturation when Vogue spoke to four art experts who analyzed the “historic” photo.
Comparing the Pelosi-Trump photo to a Baroque-era painting or The Last Supper or whatever could have easily been fun Friday content if it wasn’t so earnest:
One of the things that stood out to me is that Nancy Pelosi is standing at the same height as the bust of Benjamin Franklin. It draws an equivalence between the two of them in terms of their impact. [...] Pairing people with sculptural busts actually has a precedent in art history. It’s by no means an exact parallel, but Portrait of Citizen Belley, ex-Representative of the Colonies by a French artist named Girodet came to mind. It’s a portrait of a man named Jean-Baptiste Belley, who was involved in the Haitian Revolution and went on to become the first black deputy in the National Convention in France, and he’s standing next to a classic bust of a [white] philosopher named Raynal. The painting as a whole is speaking to ideas about black liberation. When I looked at the Pelosi photo, it’s using a similar strategy to make a point about female power. [...] This is a photo encapsulating the idea that the future is female.
I mean... okay. Even “it’s by no means an exact parallel” can’t quite adequately temper the fact that a candid photo taken of Pelosi during a meeting is being compared to a portrait of a man who fought during the Haitian Revolution.
Far more interesting than the photo of Pelosi in the meeting, too, were Pelosi’s impressions of said meeting, during which the Turkey-Syria crisis was the topic of discussion. In an interview immediately following her spar with Trump, Pelosi expressed concern over Trump’s health, saying he had a “very serious meltdown,” triggered by her suggestion that his foreign policy decisions are playing directly into Russian President Vladamir Putin’s hands. (Democrats reportedly exited the meeting once Trump called Pelosi a “third-rate politician.” Normal guy!) While news outlets noted the underlying foreign policy context of this conversation, much of that was lost in the memes and flowery praise of Pelosi that helped the photo go viral in the first place.
And when asked about the photo’s virality, Pelosi couldn’t quite recall what she was saying the moment the photo was taken. “I think I was excusing myself from the room,” she told one reporter, before reconsidering: “At that moment I was probably saying ‘all roads lead to Putin.’” She did, however, advocate for recording such meetings in the future.
I fully expect to be called a killjoy for this, and it’s a cross I’m willing to bear. It was gratifying to see Trump’s attempt to frame himself as the sensible man dealing with an “unhinged” Pelosi fail miserably. But beyond that, I feel like I’m missing the emotional charge that so many other women are apparently getting out of this photo. The internet’s vapid empowerment gesturing is exhausting and corny, but ultimately, it’s just hard to be moved by this image knowing that Pelosi has spent the last year routinely throwing energetic black and brown freshman Congresswomen under the bus. That’s the problem with this kind of social media cheerleading: It prioritizes image over action.