With the possible exception of a bizarre rhyming couplet, few words of Tuesday night’s State of the Union address will linger in the public memory past Thursday. The country is used to watching Donald Trump lie. The new and noteworthy statement made this year didn’t come out of Trump’s mouth. It came from Nancy Pelosi’s hands.
The speaker of the House sat through most of Trump’s 90-minute address with a look of unbothered neutrality on her face, standing and clapping for unobjectionable things like celebrating a Holocaust survivor’s birthday and acknowledging kids with cancer. It was when Trump beseeched Congress to “reject the politics of revenge, resistance, and retribution and embrace the boundless potential of cooperation, compromise, and the common good” that Pelosi sassed it up a bit. She got up, extended her arms toward his face, and clapped in his direction with a pointed smirk that said, “Take your own advice, loser—and delete your account while you’re at it.”
The left-leaning internet displayed near-uniform approval for the blisteringly polite show of contempt. There were tweets that made Pelosi a flattering meme and think pieces that made her out to be a herculean political performer. “We stan a queen,” as one Twitter user exclaimed of Pelosi, seemed to be the popular sentiment.
It was all a far cry from the dominant narrative that preceded Pelosi’s re-election to the top post in the national party. Two months ago, few people were getting in line to hail Pelosi as a feminist hero of the Trump resistance. Yes, one Democrat described her as a “style icon and political fairy godmother,” and journalists praised her ability to do everything male politicians do “backward and in heels” with a “look that is most withering when it comes from a mother.” But most of the chatter about Pelosi either pegged her as too centrist and old-school to be the leader of today’s increasingly progressive Democratic Party or as too bogged down by (sexist, Republican-created) baggage to win back voters who were swayed by Trump.
When Democrats took back the House in November, Pelosi gave a thoroughly disappointing victory speech that praised bipartisanship and “common ground” after a win that could not be read as anything but a rejection of Trumpism. But after just a few weeks in power, some of her actions—like refusing to flinch on the border wall during the government shutdown—have spoken louder than those words. For people who didn’t pay much attention to Pelosi’s tenure as speaker under Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, all the reasons her supporters gave to justify her return to that position—her tireless work, her serenity under pressure, her ability to hold the caucus together—are more apparent now that she’s been back in the spotlight.
There’s also something novel and low-key thrilling about seeing the first real legislative challenge to Trump come from a woman. Trump doesn’t much care for women in general, but he and the Republican Party really hate Pelosi. In 2018, Republican campaigns all over the country used her name and image as shorthand for a corrupt, amoral coastal elite. Now, she has the power to short-circuit their legislative machinery. And as a woman who’s spent her career in a notoriously sexist and male-dominated field, Pelosi knows how to needle the male ego better than a man with her job ever could. It’s been a delight to watch her calmly tell fellow Democrats that the border wall is nothing but a “manhood thing” for Trump, knowing that he loves reading about himself and would surely see the quote once it inevitably leaked.* Like Rep. Maxine Waters and Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, two other over-75 women who’ve become liberal heroes in recent years, Pelosi appeals to feminist memesters because she transforms something women are usually denigrated for (aging) into a superpower (being so accustomed to and sick of white men’s shit that she knows exactly how to rankle them).
The memes are well-intentioned and wildly sharable, but the Nancy Pelosi of the condescending clap and the sunglasses-and-red-coat photo that became EMILY’s List merch is still the same Nancy Pelosi progressives deemed too establishment for the speaker gig mere months ago. On Tuesday morning, just hours before the speech, the Intercept reported that a Pelosi aide told insurance executives that Democrats wouldn’t push too hard for Medicare for all—an increasingly popular goal for rising stars in the party.
Memes that lionize women in power are great for building enthusiasm in a time of Trump-related demoralization, but they tend to flatten their subjects into caricatures. For female politicians, whose idiosyncratic assets and flaws are already susceptible to fading away under both sexist attacks and feminist pushback to those attacks, meme-ification is even more likely to paint a reductive portrait of a singular leader. The finely tuned body language Pelosi exhibited at the State of the Union may help some of her critics understand her political strengths. Her actual policy positions should inform those who stan for her, too.
Correction, Feb. 7, 2019: This post originally stated that Nancy Pelosi told the press that the border wall was a “manhood thing” for Trump. In actuality, she made that comment to fellow Democrats, not the press.