Let’s get a few fundamental truths out of the way. Ivanka Trump is her father’s daughter, both literally and figuratively. She is also, perhaps, her father’s most devoted student. She’s a skilled bullshit artist, a brand first and a person second. Ivanka may masquerade as a feminist to sell books and shoes and jewelry, but she doesn’t care about women; Ivanka is a Trump, and Trumps only care about themselves.
Simply put, Ivanka is bad. But there’s one thing that might be worse: the obsession with dissecting her and her feminist bonafides.
Essays decrying Ivanka have been a constant since her father’s election. Writing for the Daily Beast this week, Erin Ryan said Ivanka is “just Donald Trump in a shift dress,” different from her father in style but nearly identical in substance. “Ivanka, like her father, has nothing if she doesn’t have it in her brand,” Ryan wrote.” But deep down, “Ivanka is cutthroat.” Ryan goes on to analyze a “newly unearthed interview with Howard Stern” — a years-old relic that is being analyzed as if it reveals some urgent, deep truth about the president and his family — in which Trump said that Ivanka and Donald Jr. tried to prevent their half-sister Tiffany from inheriting the family fortune.
In a New York Times op-ed earlier this month, Lindy West called Ivanka “more a logo than a person, a scarecrow stuffed with branding, an heiress-turned-model-turned-multimillionaire’s wife playacting as an authority on the challenges facing working women so that she can sell more pastel sheath dresses.” Two days earlier, the Washington Post’s Catherine Rampell wrote that both Ivanka and her father are con artists who are “advising empowerment” — the former claiming to be an advocate for women, the latter claiming to be a champion for the working class — “but delivering its opposite.” Both Rampell and West were responding to Ivanka’s endorsement of the Trump administration’s decision to revoke an initiative requiring companies to report employee salary data, which was going to go effect in the spring of 2018. “You’d think that a passionate anti-wage gap crusader like Ms. Trump would relish a broad, ever-expanding data set illuminating her pet issue so that she could go after it with laser focus, but no,” West wrote.
The Daily Show’s Michelle Wolf called Ivanka a fake feminist in August. “She’s not trying to change the patriarchy; she’s telling women how to silently slide into it, like a DM,” Wolf said. After former Salon editor and current MSNBC contributor Joan Walsh suggested Ivanka’s clothing was too “girly” for meetings with world leaders, writers at VICE, and the New Republic defended Ivanka against Walsh’s criticism while also calling her out for her complicity in her father’s administration. In February, the Nation’s Amy Wilentz wrote that the “Trump manipulation machine wants us to think that Ivanka really [her father’s] women’s rights representative,” instead of what she really is, “a loyal tail-wagger for her father’s right-wing trainwreck.” A month earlier, Jill Filipovic warned of Ivanka’s “dangerous fake feminism,” in a New York Times op-ed calling her a “kind of post feminist huckster, selling us traditional femininity and support of male power wrapped up in a feminist bow.”
Each of these essays reads like the script from “Complicit,” a Saturday Night Live sketch from March, in which Scarlett Johansson-as-Ivanka looks into the mirror and sees Donald Trump looking back at her. A feminist, an advocate, a champion for women… but like, how?” a narrator says as the fake Ivanka applies her lipstick. “Complicit: the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this, but won’t.” None of the writers using Ivanka for column copy are technically wrong, but that doesn’t exactly make them right.
Ivanka’s existence has long functioned as some sort of twisted proof that Trump is not a misogynist. In August 2015, before Ivanka fully stepped into the role of her father’s political surrogate, Vanity Fair’s Carson Griffith described her as “diplomatic,” someone who “knows exactly how to stand her ground while still maintaining her grace.” Griffith identified Ivanka’s biggest asset to the Trump campaign: her grace under pressure and meticulously crafted public persona, which allowed her to “glide over her father’s biggest obstacles.” What Griffith didn’t point out — what many people didn’t yet realize — was that Ivanka wasn’t distancing herself from her father’s obstacles; she was using her carefully crafted persona to deflect attention away from him and towards her. In March 2016, the Washington Post declared Ivanka the “anti-Donald’ protecting the family’s billion-dollar brand” and public image from her father’s racist mudslinging. In the days leading up to the 2016 Republican National Convention, the Hill referred to Ivanka as her father’s “most effective surrogate, softening the edges of Donald Trump’s brash and often controversial political campaign.” Ivanka, the prodigal daughter, was her father’s “secret weapon.”
The only times Ivanka is worth examining are on the rare occasions she breaks character, allowing herself to lose control for just a moment before remembering what her purpose is: to make her father look good. Those moments are few and far between, like when Ivanka abruptly cut short an interview with Cosmopolitan in September 2016 after being asked to provide specifics on her father’s abysmal childcare policy. Her reaction to the Cosmopolitan interview was a rarity — most other instances of Ivanka losing her cool or dropping her successful, but still relatable mother and businesswoman persona are based on secondhand accounts. In August 2016, Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti tweeted that “met her once & she casually said: “I’ve never seen a mulatto cock, but I’d like to!” (In a statement to Buzzfeed, Ivanka said Peretti’s tweet was a “complete and total lie.”) If it seems difficult to picture Ivanka at a Lower East Side dive bar, and even harder to picture her talking about “cock,” well, all of that is by design.
In May, the New York Times interviewed Marissa Kraxberger, a former executive at Ivanka’s brand, who recalled an exchange she had with Ivanka regarding maternity leave. “‘Well, we don’t have maternity leave policy here,’” Kraxberger recalled Ivanka telling her, “‘I went back to work one week after having my child, so that’s just not something I’m used to.’” An August Vanity Fair profile of Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, revealed that Ivanka’s placid demeanor covers a “an apparent vindictive streak.” Ivanka’s Instagram is all warmth and happy family photos, but in the West Wing, she “can be cold to staffers, particularly those who are not in favor with the president.”
“She tries to charm you at first, and then there’ll be the cutting remark in front of her father,” one anonymous former West Wing aide told Vanity Fair. When the cameras are on, however, Ivanka transforms into a victim. “There is a level of viciousness that I was not expecting. I was not expecting the intensity of this experience, but this isn’t supposed to be easy,” Ivanka said on Fox & Friends in June. By this point, nine months into her father’s presidency, none of this should come as a surprise. Ivanka, unlike her father, is not a loose cannon.
The endless examinations and reexaminations of Ivanka’s placid demeanor, her public persona, and what it all means seem revelatory and even cathartic, but they reveal more about us than they do about her. It feels good to think you’ve figured what lurks beneath Ivanka’s pastel surface. After all, you can’t beat her until you’ve figured out the rules of the game she’s playing. The Trump administration makes many of us feel powerless; dissecting Ivanka’s role in it, her co-opting of feminism to support fascism, is a way of trying to take back a modicum of our power. But then what?
We see her, we know what she’s doing, but that isn’t enough to stop her. In October 2016, Fran Lebowitz said Ivanka’s father is “a poor person’s idea of a rich person. They see him. They think, ‘If I were rich, I’d have a fabulous tie like that'…. All that stuff he shows you in his house, the gold faucets, if you won the lottery that’s what you’d buy.” Calling Trump a poor person’s idea of a rich person doesn’t change the fact that he’s rich, and calling Ivanka a fascist in feminist’s clothing won’t change who she is, either.