Donald Trump is a misogynistic pig. That much we can agree on. (Warning: if we can’t agree on that much, we probably won’t agree on much more.)
But the more sobering fact is that some of the most notable “critiques” of Trump are couched in a subtler form of sexism. And given that subtlety, they may ultimately be more troubling than the porcine braying of Trump himself.
The first example comes from Stephen Colbert, a man for whom I have much respect. (Although if I’m honest, I had more respect before he left Comedy Central.)
In this video Colbert tries to take down Donald Trump based on the latest debased revelations:
Kudos to Colbert for combining the shock of a normal human being reacting to Trump’s beastly shenanigans along with some incisive critique.
But don’t miss the fact that along the way Colbert refers to upcoming Late Show guest Diane Lane as “lovely, talented and beautiful”. If you’re keeping count, that is two references to physical appearance book-ending one reference to ability.
Now I’ll grant you that Colbert’s faux pas is worlds distant from Trump’s brutish misogyny. But even so, it is still in the same universe: it’s a universe where women are treated differently from men simply in virtue of their gender. In this case, they are judged disproportionately relative to their physical appearance.
Our second example comes from Paul Ryan who offered the following sharp reprimand to Donald Trump for the Access Hollywood debacle:
“Women are to be championed and revered, not objectified. I hope Mr. Trump treats this situation with the seriousness it deserves and works to demonstrate to the country that he has greater respect for women than this clip suggests.”
Did you get that? In this case, Ryan seeks to critique Trump with a statement that women, as a gender, are to be “revered”. Really? All of them? Simply in virtue of being gendered female?
We return once again to the problem: women are treated differently from men simply in virtue of their gender. In this case, the difference is expressed in terms of a deference to “veneration”. To venerate is “to regard with respect tinged with awe, venerate“. So men ought to defer to those of the female gender with respect, awe, (quasi)-veneration.
How very chivalrous! When do we joust? And is there a fair lady needing to be saved from a dragon?
Okay, I get it: Ryan meant well. But the female gender doesn’t require the collective respect, awe, or veneration of the male gender. As with Colbert’s focus on grading physical appearance, this categorical elevation of the female gender is part of an outmoded worldview.
So what do women want? Well, obviously not all agree. No doubt some like this outmoded perspective from the gilded world of chivalry. The real question is this: what is fair and proper? And in my opinion the simple answer is: equality. Not a special focus on physical appearance. Not a deference to the gender as such. Rather, just treat women as you treat men: with respect, dignity, and equality.
To sum up, while I readily concede that Colbert and Ryan are worlds better than the debased prune-faced, dirty-old-man, mandarin-tinged elder-frat boy Donald Trump, I do worry that their focus on female beauty (Colbert) or their deference to the female gender (Ryan) evince outmoded sexist attitudes that belong in the same universe.