Viewers of Donald Trump’s victory speech in Indiana on Tuesday night may have noticed the GOP candidate’s subtle, undoubtedly intentional, foregrounding of wife Melania as the pair approached the podium, her smile as gleaming white as her impeccably fitted dress.
For months now, Trump has not been shy about pointing out his wife’s beauty, already plain to see. After all, she spent many years working as a successful model, and certainly called on that background as she stood, poised and perfect, on the Indiana stage.
It was Chris Matthews who ran into trouble when he couldn’t help but assess Melania Trump’s appearance Tuesday night during MSNBC’s coverage of the primary, apparently — and awkwardly — unaware his microphone was live. “Did you see her walk? Runway walk,” he said as she crossed the stage. “My God is that good. I could watch that runway show.”
Unsavory, sure, perhaps a little creepy, yes, especially since it’s not the first time Matthews has weighed in on a woman’s appearance on air. Sexist? Some will insist it is, but this is hard to say. What his comments do provide is clear evidence that, no matter how much we may try to focus these days, especially in the political context, on anything but a woman’s looks, it’s all but impossible to ignore a beautiful woman.
But, then, why should we?
Trump, of course, knows we can’t. He has proven himself a master assessor of America’s appetites, and he has aimed to convey his potential as president partly through his expensive suits, real estate holdings, and, yes, beautiful wife and children (his tall, blond daughters are rarely out of the frame when he is claiming victory in front of TV cameras) — a collection of “achievements” that appeal to those who see in him a triumph of the American dream they want for themselves.
Sociologists have made arguments debunking the “myth of the trophy wife” — or at least positioning it as a retro ideal from, say, the days when Jacqueline Kennedy was a potential first lady — and a consideration less important to a savvy younger generation. What’s replaced it is the idea that couples “match:” powerful men seek powerful wives. Beautiful women seek handsome husbands. Barack and Michelle Obama — however they chose each other — certainly fit this model.
But we kid ourselves if we deny the power of beauty alone. Science has proven this time and again: In her groundbreaking 1999 book, “Survival of the Prettiest,” Harvard Medical School psychologist Nancy Etcoff argued that human beings are hard-wired to respond more positively to beautiful people. We like, trust and value them more. We give them better jobs and pay them higher salaries.
It makes sense, then, that Trump — and other men — would believe that “landing” a beautiful, powerful woman confers a significant status that might help. And we can’t say the notion of “arm candy” isn’t also true for women who marry good-looking men.
Beyond this, to argue that physical beauty is irrelevant and that those who see in it a certain appeal are sexist, superficial beings — which has become the common course of argument in the attempt to make looks less of an issue — is disingenuous. It’s also wrong. Sex sells, even — perhaps especially — in politics. If no one’s talking about how sexy Hillary Clinton’s husband, Bill, is, perhaps that’s because, well, he just isn’t anymore.
Either way, it shouldn’t factor into whether someone votes for his wife, just as Melania Trump’s ability to turn heads and inspire envy in others should not sway voters toward her husband. But neither should the argument be to avoid discussing (even as we are thinking about) how she looks.
The reality is that ours is a visual culture. We size up the appearance of women in this race and in every situation everywhere. Matthews’ embarrassing error was about being careless with the mic.
What’s more, it’s not as though Matthews, or Trump himself, are saying that Melania Trump is only beautiful, though even if they were, what’s the big deal? She’s a successful businesswoman, but she did enjoy a career as a model. And she’s not the one running for president.
Our focus should be on what her husband says and does, thinks and feels. The point of eliminating sexism isn’t to remove the discussion of looks from the conversation entirely. That will only give the elephant in the room more power than it has already.