In order to humiliate a man you thoroughly dislike, you must access an old photograph. Not of him, oh no. Of his wife. Preferably one in which she’s naked. If you can’t get your hands on such a picture, you could just stick to old-fashioned name-calling. She’s an immigrant from one of those formerly Communist nations. Must have been an escort. Or a drug dealer. Or a gold-digger in search of a sugar daddy. Or all three. She’s fair game for a round of abuse because, after all, we hate her husband.
Patriarchy 101 was on splendid display barely hours after Hillary Clinton conceded defeat to Donald Trump and social media was awash with pictures of the future first lady, Melania Trump. Shot for British GQ in 2000 in the heyday of her modelling career and before she became Trump’s third wife, Melania is sprawled, apparently nude, on a bed. That’s discreet compared to what the Rupert Murdoch-owned, right-leaning New York Post had run in August: full frontal with strategically placed stars. The Ogle Office, shouted the headline. The photograph was captioned, First Lady…of the night.
Trump’s surprise victory gave a new lease of life to the old pictures. It didn’t make it any less sexist or tasteless that amongst those retweeting and circulating them were those who are often regarded as liberal—the journalist Tunku Varadarajan who retweeted the GQ cover, for instance. At least one of them, historian and author William Dalrymple, deleted an offending picture once he was berated on social media.
Depressingly, misogyny trumps ideology—if you’ll forgive the pun. The photographs were first circulated by a conservative, anti-Trump organization called Make America Awesome. “Meet Melania Trump. Your next First Lady,” declared the caption. Ted Cruz, Trump’s then rival in the primaries, denied he had anything to do with the pictures, but Trump’s reaction was textbook misogynist: “Lyin’ Ted Cruz just used a picture of Melania from a G.Q. shoot in his ad. Be careful, Lyin’ Ted, or I will spill the beans on your wife!” he tweeted.
Spill the beans on your wife? Underlying the third grade tittle-tattle maturity of the fight-back, we seem to be in some archaic era when wives were collateral damage in a battle between men. In this patriarchal world view, wives are extensions of their husbands; their bodies linked to their honour. In 2008, French president Nicolas Sarkozy was similarly sought to be embarrassed when old nude photographs of his wife, Carla Bruni, surfaced just before an official visit to the UK. Michelle Obama has been criticized for showing her bare arms (imagine that) in official White House photographs.
In a strange and ironic way, this is exactly the sort of sexism that Trump perpetuated and enabled throughout his campaign: Mocking women reporters, deriding other women, including his political opponent, for their looks and admitting to predatory behaviour, a.k.a. ‘locker room talk’. Melania aided and abetted it by calling it ‘boys’ talk’, so she isn’t blameless either. And the fact that Hillary Clinton’s husband was also accused of such behaviour only goes to show how pervasive it all is.
Exit polls have found that 87% of Trump supporters (including females) were not bothered by his treatment of women. It tells us that the urgent question is not just knocking down one glass ceiling, but changing attitudes to how we see women. The challenge is not electing the first woman president. The challenge is booting out patriarchy and sexism that is so insidious that we often fail to recognize it or call it out when we see it.
It’s this attitude that grants impunity to continuing sexual assault, which is pervasive in India and the US, on campuses and in the workplace. For survivors, the message is frightening. Speaking up means inviting even more scrutiny. For perpetrators, the message is clear: lads, a guy who admitted to groping (even in jest, and it is never funny) just became president.
It’s never just a photograph. Anyone who believes in decency and gender equality must call out this kind of misogyny. We must do it because we have to be better than them. We must do it because gender rights and dignity is still a fight worth fighting.
Namita Bhandare is gender editor of Mint.
Her Twitter handle is @namitabhandare