Christine de Pizan

Christine de Pizan
The Writer Christine de Pizan at Her Desk

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

Trump and Pussy Galore

Donald Trump Doesn't Know that Women Are Human

There's been so much written and said about Donald Trump's inability to distinguish between a real human woman and blow-up sex doll that I hesitate to add to the outrage--and yet I can't quite keep quiet, either. 

Barry Blitt's New Yorker cover,
10 October 2016
And while I'm pretty pissed about his sniggering and salivating on the Access Hollywood tapes, I can't believe that this--this--is what has caused such a furor.

Earlier in the day, just a few hours before the tapes were released, Trump had insisted in a statement to CNN that the five teenaged boys convicted as the "Central Park Five" in 1990--five juveniles who were (unjustly) convicted, who served sentences of six to thirteen years, who were ultimately proven innocent by DNA evidence, and who were exonerated in 2002--were still guilty.

Never mind that the real perpetrator confessed--his DNA matched. (For further analysis, click here.)

Never mind evidence. Never mind truth. Never mind decency. 

But, no, it wasn't this that caused the outrage.

It was pussy that proved to be the problem.

After Trump's lifelong career of leering and pawing and slobbering, it was a few words on a bus that somehow proved to be too much. 

Still, however crude Trump's language may have been, it wasn't just the word "pussy" that got him into trouble. Although that was the word that caused much of the outrage, there was something else--it was his reduction of a woman to a series of body parts that was so revealing. It wasn't that the unnamed woman had refused him--it was the way he reduced her to just a "pussy," "legs," and "tits." 

And as Trump and his repellent sidekick turned their puerile conversation to the actress who was to greet them, they again failed to acknowledge that, as a woman, she was a human being, an adult person, much less an equal. For the infantile sycophant on the bus with Trump (who referred to himself in gag-inducing third person as "the Bushie"), she was Trump's "girl." 

But for Trump himself, she wasn't even a "girl," she was an "it." "Maybe it's a different one," he responded. And added, "It looks good." That isn't the only time he has dehumanized women with his pronoun choice--in a conversation with Howard Stern, as just one more example, Trump described checking on "his" Miss Universe contestants with a similar impersonal pronoun: "I'm inspecting because I want to make sure that everything is good," he explained. Not everyone--everything.

As one more example of dehumanizing language. After calling the woman who had accused him of groping her on a plane a liar, he wasn't done. At a rally in Greensboro, NC (14 October 2016), he reduced his accuser to a thing--an undesirable thing. "Believe me," he said, "Man, you don't know. That would not be my first choice." Not only was she too ugly for him, she wasn't a person, just "that." (For video and transcript, click here. [Update, January 2024: the link no longer takes you to the video and transcript, so don’t bother—thanks, Fox.] I can't believe I linked to Fox News--recognizing the problem, even Fox "fixed" Trump's words in its headline by emphasizing an earlier use of "she.")

Or, then, there's this: Trump at a golf tournament, where he sees an attractive woman. “Hey, look at this one."

Now anyone who has been alive--and thinking--over the last three decades has surely been made aware of the concept of objectification, in particular the objectification of women. If you've watched a music video, seen a film, flipped through a fashion magazine, or even looked at a billboard, you've encountered objectification: rather than thinking, desiring, active human beings, women are reduced to things, or, more frequently, reduced to parts of their bodies. We are not looking at women. We are looking at boobs, butts, and legs. 
Women reduced to body parts in advertising

In a classic discussion of the concept, philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes that "One is treating as an object what is really not an object, what is, in fact, a human being."

Here are the "seven notions" that, as Nussbaum writes, "are involved in that idea":*
  1. Instrumentality: The objectifier treats the object as a tool of his or her purposes.
  2. Denial of autonomy: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in autonomy and self-determination.
  3. Inertness: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in agency, and perhaps also in activity.
  4. Fungibility: The objectifier treats the object as interchangeable (a) with other objects of the same type, and/or (b) with objects of other types.
  5. Violability: The objectifier treats the object as lacking in boundary-integrity, as something that it is permissible to break up, smash, break into. 
  6. Ownership: The objectifier treats the object as something that is owned by another, can be bought or sold, etc.
  7. Denial of subjectivity: The objectifier treats the object as something whose experience and feelings (if any) need not to be taken into account.
If you run through all of these, thinking just of the Trump tape, you can see that he's 7 for 7! Score! What a dick! (See what I did there?)

Another example of dismemberment
Anyway, this particular kind of objectification--which cultural critic Jean Kilbourne has labeled "dismemberment"--is so pervasive we often ignore it. When I used to teach gender studies, my students would shake their heads in puzzlement until I showed them images from advertising. Even then they thought I had just managed to find a few shocking examples--until I asked them to go through a current issue of Vogue or Cosmo

In an op-ed for The [Tacoma] News Tribune, I wrote about advertisements that featured women's dead bodies--beautiful dead corpses in designer dresses. The editor was so sure I had it wrong that he asked me to bring the print ads I described to his office--just so he could be sure I wasn't making shit up, I guess. And then, much to my dismay, he decided to print them alongside my argument against treating women's bodies this way! 

A Marc Jacobs ad, just one of dozens featuring
bodies of dead women
As just one more example of how this substituting body parts for women works, students in one of my classes posted ads on the bulletin board, one of them a Victoria's Secret ad featuring a series of female torsos in bras and panties. A colleague of mine came by my office to complain about our use of the bulletin board--it was distracting. Fair enough--I agreed to remove the Victoria's Secret ad, which was the one he found offensive. But then he said that he found "the blonde" model in the lavender lingerie particularly troublesome. When I told him there weren't any blondes in the ad--or brunettes or redheads, for that matter--just a series of torsos, he refused to believe me until we went to the classroom. Although there were no heads on any of the torsos in the ad, he still argued that he wasn't wrong. The torso in lavender must be a blonde because of the fair complexion on the exposed skin of the headless body!

Now, my colleague could be a bit of an asshole on occasion (see! again!), but he's a thoughtful, considerate man who regards women as thinking human beings. 

Unlike Donald Trump, who's a complete dick. A useless tool. There. I feel better. 

Ben Wiseman's illustration for Frank Bruni's
"If Donald Trump Changed Genders,"
New York Times (27 February 2016)

*Martha C. Nussbaum, "Objectification," Philosophy & Public Affairs, 24, no. 4 (1995): 257. Nussbaum's article is available through JSTOR

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