In an article published over the weekend, BuzzFeed asked: How do you create sympathy for Kellyanne Conway? The answer, apparently, is to draw attention to how people are mean about her looks. An article in Sunday’s New York Times followed a similar line of logic, using random tweets and Saturday Night Live sketches as evidence of the surface-level sexism being hurled at Conway. A Vogue piece written about the Times piece said not only that sexism is bad no matter at whom it is waged, but also warned: “Perhaps Conway is using her femininity against us.” At what point does anti-sexism become sexism again?
The only thing worse than being a woman is reading shit written about women, and I should know because I write some of it! Haha. But really: Can we talk about K3lly4nn3 C0nw4y or no? Obviously, assholes in our own fucking government make it really hard to be a woman leader or even sit on a couch in a dress, but as I discussed last week, the government is full of sexist fools. Kind of similar to another industry, the media, and also the entire world. But the thing about Conway that’s strange, and that goes sadly undiscussed while her (very dry) hair is dissected strand by strand by Twitter eggs, is that there are so few historical antecedents to her in America. Despite her eye bags, Conway is the first woman to run a winning presidential campaign (obviously John Podesta did not set the bar very high for her to clear in this most recent contest, but a first is a first), and the rare woman to serve as a prominent mouthpiece for a president.
So what do we do with such an uncommon peacock as a powerful woman? We talk about her looks. Unlike powerful women doing things, talking about what a woman looks like is as American a tradition as the myth of personal responsibility. I’m not hopeful about the world ever arriving at a place in which people will not talk about how a famous woman looks. As long as people have eyes and brains and mouths, this stuff will be discussed. I mean, Mitch McConnell’s second chin literally touches the ground when he sits down? It’s nuts. I’m grateful, at least, that Conway has ingratiated herself enough with the president and the media to give us relief from the slough of pieces about how the only other women of influence in Trump’s sphere, Ivanka Trump and Hope Hicks, manage to be both beautiful AND classy at the same time. A true feat for the female species.
What do we do with such an uncommon peacock as a powerful woman?
Women, especially interesting, ambitious women, do not typically thrive among fascists (Italian women under fascism were expected to be “submissive” and “strong mothers”). In this way, Conway evokes another woman who earned the respect of fascists: no, not Margaret Thatcher, but Nazi film director Leni Riefenstahl. Hitler admired Riefenstahl, who was also an actress, as the pinnacle of “Aryan womanhood” and also liked her movies. Riefenstahl was a talented technical director — film buffs will cite her pioneering use of tracking shots and slow-motion takes — and Hitler gave her vast resources to make Nazi propaganda. Until her death in 2003, Riefenstahl maintained that she hadn’t been aware of the systematic extermination campaign waged by her bosses, and she was never charged with any crime.
Something interesting happened to Riefenstahl about three decades after WWII ended: She was reclaimed not only by filmmakers, but by feminists. In her 1975 essay “Fascinating Fascism,” Susan Sontag wrote, “Part of the impetus behind Riefenstahl’s recent promotion to the status of a cultural monument surely is owing to the fact that she is a woman. In the roll call that runs from Germaine Dulac and Dorothy Arzner to Vera Chytilova, Agnès Varda, Mai Zetterling, Shirley Clarke, et al., Riefenstahl stands out as the only woman director who has done work likely to turn up on lists of the Twenty Greatest Films Of All Time.” She went on, “The 1973 New York Film Festival poster, made by a well-known artist who is also a feminist, shows a blond doll-woman whose right breast is encircled by three names: Agnes Leni Shirley. Feminists would feel a pang at having to sacrifice the one woman who made films that everybody acknowledges to be firstrate.”
This analysis no doubt angered feminists, and Sontag had a heated exchange about the movement with Adrienne Rich in the letters section of The New York Review of Books. Rich defended feminists, noting that women had picketed showings of Riefenstahl’s films, and that when the director was invited to speak at a film festival in Chicago, women protested and got the talk canceled. Rich chided Sontag for not recognizing these victories. “The feminist movement has been passionately anti-hierarchal and anti-authoritarian,” she wrote. “Feminists have also been justly alert to and critical of women who have ‘made it’ in the patriarchy (and Nazi Germany was patriarchy in its purest, most elemental form).”
Must feminists ignore the successes of women in the patriarchy? Sontag, who once said that “feminist” was “one of the few labels” she was happy with, responded to Rich caustically. “Like all capital moral truths, feminism is a bit simple-minded,” she wrote. “That is its power and, as the language of Rich’s letter shows, that is its limitation. Fascism must also be seen in the context of other — less perennial — problems,” such as the crumbling of the state. She ended her letter with a wallop. “Adrienne Rich, whom I have always admired as poet and phenomenologist of anger, is a piker compared to some self-styled radical feminists, all too eager to dump the life of reason (along with the idea of authority) into the dustbin of ‘patriarchal history.’ Still, her well-intentioned letter does illustrate a persistent indiscretion of feminist rhetoric: anti-intellectualism.”
Sontag is obviously right that the problems of feminism are dwarfed by the problems of fascism. When we look at Conway divorced from context, we see a woman — a mother — under siege of camera klieg lights (as Anne Helen Petersen observed with the dedication of a cultural anthropologist in her BuzzFeed piece, Conway is “filmed straight-on, staring both the camera and her interviewer in the eye. The light is often unflattering … her makeup unable to cover the bags under her eyes that naturally accompany the life of a woman who’s offering commentary when most are still in bed”). When we look at her in the context of her co-workers of the Trump administration, well, she looks a lot like them: sinister, unattractive, and white.
Defending Conway in the face of sexist attacks may be a small step forward for feminist discourse, but where was that discourse to begin with? It’s a conversation that only serves to keep us trapped in a loop in which women will always matter most for how their physical attributes are processed by others. This is not about choosing between fascism and feminism as a cause, or about how women should be treated generally. It’s about recognizing where there is a useful battle to fight. Analyzing the mean shit people say about Conway’s looks is illuminating in the way that those 100-calorie snack packs advertised in the pages of a women’s magazine are satiating. Both give the appearance of being something virtuous, but in fact are totally empty.
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