The whole world was watching as Melania and Ivanka Trump joined the most important man in their lives and ours in Saudi Arabia this week. The U.S. president thinks a woman’s place is either on the beauty-pageant catwalk or behind a stroller containing his heir. Saudi Arabia forbids women from attending public events where men will be present or getting medical care without a male relative’s permission. How would the women of America’s first family conduct themselves?
As very attractive role models, Washington Post columnist Kathleen Parker tells us. “Preternaturally beautiful, they seemed to glide as apparitions above the sea of dark suits and white robes and must have struck fear in the hearts of men whose culture demands that women be publicly invisible,” Parker writes in a piece published Tuesday night. With their very expensive attire and their symmetrical bone structure, Melania and Ivanka “made a lasting impression on Saudi women … with their feminine power.”
I’d like to personally thank Parker for sharing this recipe for feminine power, which I’ve been trying to work out for decades with middling results. I think I’d assumed it was some proprietary blend of money, menstrual regularity, and a wide-legged stance, perfected only by Sheryl Sandberg and ladies in deodorant commercials. It is a relief to know that all it takes is cheekbones, a well-fitted maxi dress, and a male family member in a position to insist that you be allowed to sit quietly in a corner while the men talk oil. Parker notes that other foreign women have, like Ivanka and Melania, met with Saudi officials without wearing headscarves. Michelle Obama and Laura Bush both did it, she writes. I’d add to that list Hillary Clinton, Angela Merkel, and Theresa May. Reader, you may be wondering what the difference is between these women and the Trump ones, the latter of whom can make men in dark suits and white robes quiver with their very presence. The answer is simple: the Trumps are pretty, and whoa, get a load of their dresses! Watch out, Saudi fundamentalists. Pursed, exfoliated lips are in the house.
Even in their silence, Parker tells us, Ivanka and Melania spoke loudly through the existence of their human bodies and the fabrics with which they were covered. “Wordlessly, they projected strength, intelligence, grace—and a timeless wisdom that all women share,” she writes. Women everywhere should be reevaluating their major life choices right now. They don’t need to develop and defend informed opinions to be strong. They don’t need to be able to read and synthesize information to be intelligent. They don’t need to say a single word to have grace. By subtly refusing to hold her husband’s hand on an Israeli tarmac, Parker writes, Melania “became every American woman who donned a pink-kitten hat to protest the then-new president.”
We knew the personal was political, but I certainly did not know that what might have been an involuntary hand spasm or a case of sweaty palms was political on the scale of the largest protest day in world history. And it’s news to me that sitting noiselessly in a room while being gorgeous could constitute a statement of liberation. This is a revolutionary realization! Women can literally just exhibit basic vital signs in the presence of men who consider women fragile, lesser beings, and as long as they don’t fall asleep or melt into an oozing subhuman puddle à la Alex Mack, they are feminist heroes! It is so easy. Every woman can do it! Provided she has nice skin, a former career in modeling, and the capacity to zip her lips around misogynist dignitaries.
I wish Parker had elaborated on the “timeless wisdom that all women share,” which I am not sure I share but would surely like to know about. Is it “be pretty and fade into the background”? “Be pretty and look alert”? “Be pretty and don’t make a peep”? Parker writes that the Trump women “stood as beacons of light in a part of the world that remains cloaked in the darkness of religious fundamentalism and oppression.” This, “despite their apparent ornamentalism.” Those Saudi women must feel super grateful for these examples of how women can be at once beautiful, silent, and ornamental, a vision of womanhood they never see at home and only America can provide.
When Ivanka did speak in Saudi Arabia, it was to thank the nation that doesn’t let women drive for donating $100 million to her burgeoning women’s empowerment fund. Such strength, such intelligence! Parker doesn’t opine on how this verbal statement figured into Ivanka’s wordless feminist advocacy in Saudi Arabia. But it does seem to align with the behavioral mores expected of a modest, decorative woman in the country. No matter that the women of Saudi Arabia, who can’t open a bank account without the consent of a male guardian, will benefit little from a fund meant to support female entrepreneurship. Ivanka’s speech was appropriate and fine, because her father and husband, who do the real work around here, lent her permission to give it.