Kellyanne Conway has spent her career lambasting feminism, depicting the ideology as one of “gloom and doom” that revels in hating men or, as Conway once put it, a movement based on the “revulsion towards men in your life.” Indeed, Conway has built her career on being what she’s called a “conservative feminist,” touting “femininity not feminism” and vocally disapproving of a movement that, by her account, has been “hijacked by the pro-abortion movement [and] anti-male sentiments.” Though Conway has distanced herself from the label “feminist” (she’s also called herself a postfeminist, whatever that means), the New York Times is very concerned about the “bipartisan exercise” of “misogyny” aimed at Conway.
In a piece published this weekend, the Times’s Susan Chira, senior correspondent and editor on gender issues, bravely takes on a handful of tweets and Facebook comments that have criticized Conway’s appearance, particularly her clothes. Jezebel, too, was employed as evidence of the misogyny leveled against Conway. In one of our regular features, a Good/Bad/Ugly post about Inauguration Day fashion, Julianne wrote that Conway “turned a rather cute Gucci look into Alessandro Michele’s night terror of an android majorette.” This fashion critique is apparently evidence of the kind of misogyny endured by Conway, so thank goodness she has the New York Times, a paper described by her boss as “failing” and “fake news,” to defend her from internet commenters, an unfunny Saturday Night Live skit, and single fashion post here at Jezebel. (It’s worth noting that we’ve written numerous posts about Conway, particularly her penchant for dismissing sexual assault allegations but, hey, we once said something negative about her clothes.)
Chira’s piece raises a question that seems to be on the internet’s mind, namely: What do feminists owe Conway? The answer seems to be graciousness. Chira interviewed a handful of women on the left, including former Clinton campaign advisor and MSNBC host Karen Finney. “These sexist memes are not the purview of one party,” Finney told the Times. “We fear strong women and women with power. These attacks are meant to delegitimize that power.” Finney’s broader point, that sexism is everywhere, is reiterated by Gillian Thomas, a senior lawyer at the Women’s Rights Project of the American Civil Liberties Union. “If women were more united and speaking up at this behavior, including when it’s perpetrated by the left, we’d all be a lot better off,” Thomas told the Times.
So, let me do my duty as a woman and say that sexism is bad. Now that’s out of the way, let’s actually consider how misogyny is being framed, particularly in the case of Conway and the broader usage of the term feminism within the Trump administration. The Times is doing a lot Conway’s work for her, demanding the graciousness of all women in order to preserve her narrative authority, one that involves lying to further the racist, sexist agenda of the White House and glibly dismissing numerous sexual assault allegations against her boss. Conway wants to have her proverbial cake and eat it too; feminism is bad except when it’s good. It’s the conundrum of conservative women, generally employed to keep critics at bay and the ideology if individualism intact. There’s no question that people have said sexist things about Conway—she’s a woman who exists in the world. But there seems to be a particular demand here, to ignore Conway’s role as an integral member of an oppressive administration in order to extend both kindness and solidarity at the expense of everything else. I’m not quite convinced that mounting a vocal campaign against sexist memes would make women “a lot better off.” After all, a sexist meme is currently the President of the United States.
But the issue of Conway’s appearance—both her clothes (apparently it’s sexist to criticize her clothes) and her body—still remains. In a savvier piece at Buzzfeed, Anne Helen Peterson explores a similar question, offering a kind of roundabout defense of Conway by reiterating particular skill at defending President Trump’s racist, sexist policies. Peterson depicts Conway as a victim of a particular kind of sexism that plagues women in the public sphere, particularly as they age:
Conway recently turned 50; but unlike other women of her age, she has insisted on keeping her hair long, like the conservative women 20 years her junior, and embraces a sort of coy girlishness in her manner. She doesn’t cover her arms or her neck, as older women are taught to do in order to hide “unseemly” wrinkles.
Let’s be clear: This shouldn’t be a sin. There are reasons to criticize Kellyanne Conway, but her appearance is absolutely not one of them. Yet in today’s media climate, Conway’s appearance, combined with her visibility, has rendered her not just unruly, but bordering on abject. Memes most often compare her to Cruella de Vil, Skeletor, and Golem; one calls her a “Sewer Rat Barbie” while another viral Instagram image compares her complexion to a withered banana.
Let me, again, do my duty as a woman, and say that Peterson is right, comparing Conway’s looks to Skeletor is sexist, boring, and cliché. There are undoubtedly ways to satirize Conway without resorting to traditional frames of misogyny; ways to delegitimize her power without bothering about her complexion. But there’s an odd framing of Conway’s appearance here as a politically neutral entity or, worse yet, a bold resistance of the expectations of an aging woman, feminist in its own right. But the presentation of the body, particularly Conway’s representation of herself as trenchantly feminine, is by no means neutral. Indeed, the body and the rhetoric that surrounds it is central to Trump’s worldview reflected in both speeches and policies. Trump’s political deployment of the body is, more so than the internet’s casual sexism, perhaps the greatest challenge to feminism.
By Conway’s own account, femininity is a visual rejoinder and rejection of feminism. “If women want to be taken seriously in the workforce, looking feminine is a good place to start,” Conway said in a speech she gave to the Conservative Women’s Network in 2011. President Trump’s dictum that female employees should “dress like women” likely met with a willing ally in Conway. But that order, to “dress like women,” isn’t just casual sexism in play; it’s a reaffirmation of an ideology about what bodies should look like, something that Conway talks about quite a bit.
There are companion portraits to Conway’s long hair and “coy girlishness,” ones that necessarily remain invisible because they are fictional. Conway herself conjures them up on cable news with regularity: the lurking criminal immigrant and the Muslim terrorist. Conway’s references to the Bowling Green terrorist attack—an attack that never happened—reinforces a stereotype of people of color (necessarily foreigners) rendering violence on white bodies, proof of the necessity of the Muslim ban. Similarly, Trump regularly invokes “illegals” as criminals so dangerous that he ordered Homeland Security to “make public a comprehensive list of criminal actions committed by aliens.” Then, there are the dangers of trans people lurking in bathrooms out to harm the right kind of women, women who “dress like women.” Implicit to the White House’s narrative of degenerate bodies is the “natural” body—women who look and act like women and men who act like men. Conway is the spokeswoman for that ideology and her presentation of herself—as a postfeminist, a conservative individualist who “prefers the label mommy” is part and parcel of that narrative.
It’s hard to bracket out the sexist attacks on Conway’s appearance from the Trump White House’s politicization of the body, particularly the white body. I’m not certain that expending energy on defending Conway is in the best interest of “all women” or if it’s simply in the interest of maintaining the sanctity of the white feminine body. The answer certainly isn’t Skeletor memes nor is it the treatment of Conway as “abject” (as mentioned by Peterson). It’s an ironic turn of phrase since the abject—a phrase borrowed from Julia Kristeva that describes the particular horror of the other, of the vileness and filth they represent—is employed with regularity by Conway.
The question that remains is one of feminist priorities: What is more important, our desire to protect the integrity of white women like Conway or our desire to delegitimize power used despicably? Do feminists owe Conway a vocal defense, particularly when that defense will only be used to empower a spokeswoman for everything we ostensibly stand against? Those seem harder questions than simply denouncing sexist memes and the very question that Kellyanne Conway asks us.