The unlikely star of the anti-impeachment stunt Republicans pulled on Wednesday wasn’t any of the congressmen who stormed a secure area of the Capitol to stop a deposition on Trump’s Ukraine extortion attempt. It was a woman in a blue dress who stood in a stairwell above them, gazing upward in a warm beam of light as Rep. Matt Gaetz jabbered at her feet.
The photo that captured this woman, taken by Daily Beast reporter Sam Brodey, quickly spread online.
Trump haters immediately seized on the woman in the picture as the embodiment of their frustration with the president’s far-right supporters, who’ve been scrambling to disrupt the investigation. Don Cheadle and Alyssa Milano asked their Twitter followers to caption the image. Other Twitter users imagined her speaking their own exasperation: “Is it raining douchebags?” or “Please dear God now, right now with the lightning strike,” or “I ask for only one thing Lord and that is for all of their tiny white penises to simultaneously fall off and slide out their pant legs onto their shoes right now on camera.”
But the symbol was a real live person. And, as BuzzFeed reported later in the day, she wasn’t upset about the GOP’s Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility break-in—she was there to help them make it happen. Her name is Charli Huddleston, and she works for Rep. Jim Jordan, one of the Trump loyalists who flouted security protocol to halt the deposition.
“At least I look OK,” she told BuzzFeed of the viral photo.
Huddleston wasn’t the only Republican woman co-opted into resistance symbolism on Wednesday. When my colleague Jim Newell tweeted a photo of the Domino’s pizza Rep. Steve Scalise ordered for journalists covering the SCIF stunt, users zeroed in on the face of a woman side-eyeing the camera as she grabs a paper plate. In the replies, they credited her with representing Americans who’ve had enough of the GOP’s increasingly indefensible exploits: “The woman wearing black looks like she wants no part of this foolishness.” “Whoever you are, ma’am, you speak to me.” “#SheIsUs.”
She was not, in fact, us. After watching hundreds of people like and comment on the tweets of her face, the woman outed herself as Janae Frazier, the press secretary for Rep. Mark Walker, another pro-Trump congressman who forced his way into the SCIF. “Y’all I have become a meme. I’m DEAD!” Frazier tweeted.
The widespread misinterpretation of Huddleston and Frazier’s expressions of low-key irritation—they weren’t so over the GOP’s foolishness; they were helping enact it—continued a broader propensity among liberals to ascribe their own politics and emotions to any woman reacting to a conservative man in public. The Trump era has seen wider-than-ever gender gaps in presidential approval ratings, opinions on the role of government, and party support at the polls. As a result, as women have leaned away from the Republican Party and led the activist opposition to Trump’s agenda, their gender has become shorthand for the entire Trump resistance.
This demographic extrapolation is part wishful thinking and part gender reductivism. Even Trump’s own family members, who publicly lavish him with praise, are sometimes said to be secretly against him. “Free Melania” had a moment as a catchphrase after a GIF showed the first lady frowning at Trump’s inauguration; Tiffany Trump is the subject of persistent liberal fantasies of a resentful, oft-snubbed daughter just biding her time before she turns on her dad.
For another example, recall one of the most iconic images of Brett Kavanaugh’s Supreme Court nomination hearings, a photo by Jim Bourg depicting Kavanaugh screaming into his microphone. Behind him, in the front row of the gallery, a line of women sit and watch, wearing expressions of sorrow, confusion, and disgust. A tweet of the picture with the comment “every woman in this pic tho” garnered more than 207,000 retweets and more than 575,000 likes. Ana Marie Cox tweeted that it was “like the last supper but for feminism.” A Fast Company writer opined that the women’s reactions “were likely shared by millions of other women all over America. And they vote.”
The women behind Kavanaugh were his mother, his wife, his former clerk, and two friends who’d gone on Fox News to defend him against allegations of sexual assault. Their revulsion wasn’t aimed at the petulant nominee who performed the worst attributes of belligerent masculinity that day, but at the people who, in their view, had unjustly tainted the reputation of an upstanding gentleman. Some of them were members of the group of “women for Kavanaugh” who’d signed letters and made appearances on the judge’s behalf. They were expressly placed behind him to show that it wasn’t just men who wanted an alleged sexual abuser and abortion rights foe on the Supreme Court.
While they leveraged their gender to support Kavanaugh, their gender was making them into easily adoptable tragedy masks for his detractors.
The Kavanaugh photo, like the image of Huddleston in a blue dress, caught the imagination in part because of its painterly composition. Both pictures captured exaggerated facial expressions, bloviating fancy-men, and quiet but watchful feminine figures. The Huddleston photo is particularly striking, as are most images of Republican get-togethers, for its depiction of the balance of power in American politics and the homogeneity of modern conservatism. Ninety percent of House Republicans are white men, and they’re always wearing suits, making any given group of them look like a collection of mass-produced mean-mugging dolls; the photos practically write their own commentary.
Yet the desire to assume that any woman in the middle of a bout of conservative theater is above all the white male idiocy surrounding her seems particularly suspect in light of the post-election scrutiny on white women who voted for Trump and the Trump-appointed women now using corporate feminism to whitewash the abuses they carried out in his name. Sure, the artist is dead; maybe once a person’s facial expression becomes a site of liberal catharsis and emotional outsourcing, it no longer matters what the brain behind the face thinks about, say, Roe v. Wade or the rule of law. But to recognize female subjectivity and agency is to recognize that women work toward a wide range of political ends, including ones that run counter to the interests of their own gender. Women are all over the GOP—you don’t see them much, because Republicans don’t quite like to nominate them as candidates or elect them into office, but they’re there. Oftentimes the most logical explanation for a woman’s presence near a gaggle of conservative men is that she agrees with them, or at the very least, she’s hitched her future to theirs. She’s not disgusted by them; she’s disgusted right along with them.