By now, everyone who reads, watches, or listens to the news knows that anti-Trump Super PAC Make America Awesome recently created an advertisement featuring a nude photo of Melania Trump, which read, “Meet Melania Trump, your next First Lady. Or, you could support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.” The goal: convince Utah Republicans to vote for Ted Cruz—unless, of course, they were okay with this former model posing naked as America’s First Lady. Unsurprisingly, Trump saw the ad as an invitation to attack Cruz and threatened to “spill the beans” about his opponent’s wife, Heidi Cruz. He then retweeted a Trump supporter who posted side-by-side photos of Melania and Heidi, comparing their beauty. While we’ve certainly been bombarded with the crass and venal tone of this campaign, these attacks on the candidates’ wives represent a new low.
But this brouhaha isn’t just about political discourse (emphasis on “course”). It isn’t just about Republican divisiveness or the new face of Conservatism in the U.S. It’s about the media’s treatment of women, and the images they create and perpetuate that add to expectations and pressures women face.
Predictably, the photos were circulated everywhere over the Internet. At times, the tone of the accompanying commentary was one of disapproval—either of Melania’s questionable choice to pose for the pictures in the first place, or Make America Awesome’s choice to make the ad. But the hand-wringing didn’t seem to affect the reproduction of the offending photos. An already ridiculous campaign conversation turned into a conversation about two women—neither of whom is running for office. Instead of focusing attention on the important issues facing the country—e.g., national security, immigration reform, the economy, and health care—the photos kicked off hours of discussion in the media about the way the candidates were reacting to the ad—and to each other.
This incident raises several questions about U.S. culture’s treatment of women. When Heidi and Melania became the focus of attention, everyone chimed in with opinions about their beauty and virtue. They were, essentially, used as fodder for sensationalist rhetoric. What message does this send to young women? They are learning that any foray into public life will be accompanied by judgments about their looks, even if they are intelligent and taking strong stances on important issues.
Family is, evidently, fair game when it comes to media and politics. Is it any wonder that many people who would make great leaders don’t want to run for office? And what will be the verdict of future generations when they evaluate the media’s coverage of women in the 2016 election? We can only hope they find the level of disrespect and superficiality shockingly unfamiliar.
Patricia Phalen is an associate professor of media and public affairs at George Washington University.