HERE’S THE PHOTO that signaled the victory of President Rapist. Two women sit facing each other, each in a chair, tidy little side tables holding tea beside them. There’s a silk damask sofa in silvery blue. On the golden coffee table, a round bouquet of flowers the shape of a pregnant belly. A creamy white fireplace mantel, gilded candelabra, a mirror holding the reflection of a bright chandelier. It’s the traditional décor of the White House’s Yellow Oval Room, a well-appointed drawing room with a Louis XVI inflection. Restraint. Opulence. It’s November 10, 2016, two days after the election.
Even the way the photo was released and then covered by the media signaled a queasy change. There’s Melania, stage right, in a black dress — a sheath of mysterious design, purred one report. There’s Michelle, stage left, in a purple dress slashed with orange — by the Cuban-American designer Narcisco Rodriguez it was breathily noted. Well, good, certainly. In a way.
The internet was, as it likes to describe itself, abuzz with speculation: Did Michelle choose purple in the spirit of conciliation, in a roll-over-and-play-dead blend of red and blue in support of Hillary? Look at the flowers: they’re purple and orange too. The house agrees with the lady’s dress. And was the funereal black a subtle snark by Melania, or a silent cry for help as she mourned the death of the republic?
One site fumbled, “The great news, however, is that despite their vast differences in background, beliefs, and lifestyles, they were able to civilly communicate, especially after accusations that Melania copied a speech of Michelle’s from 2008. All we can do is hope for the best for the two!”
Great news? Hope for the best for the two? For these two? Together? And what is the best? Civilly communicate? A common running thread in the national commentary was semi-coherency, as if we were drugged. Yes, that’s all we can do. Hope for the best.
When there is too much cognitive dissonance, the brain stops trying to make sense of it. We began to slurp down the slimy reality of President Rapist’s ascension with that photo. Such a tightly choreographed scene, packed and coded. Which made it even more violent, a cataclysm, a geological but silent catastrophe underneath the surface as we lurched from one era to another. The national narrative as boneless as a nursery rhyme: The women chatted about children as they sipped their tea.
Take another look. This was our mighty Michelle, who grew fiercer and more impassioned the more poisonous the election got. Here she was, reduced to idle chit-chat over tea about motherly concerns. Oh and there’s the famous Dolley Madison yellow tissue box holder for when they have a runny nose. In the context of the Obama’s residence, the traditional décor of the White House, built by slaves, had a certain righteousness to it. The Louis XVI pieces took on some gilded comeuppance, but briefly.
The effect of setting these two women in such mannered, old-world symmetry was frightening. Not a hair, a thought or a saucer out of place. A room of obliterating, numbing order, and the heck with revolution. Melania’s face, as usual, was mostly unseen, her thoughts unknowable. Her expression is frozen as a doll’s, curtained by that faux-auburn hair, a sticky fringe of mascara’d eyelashes a bit too akin to the kind of doll eyes that roll open and closed. To be fair, she is transmitting a sense of lightly conversational interest. Meanwhile there is Michelle, mid-gesture, a delicate wrist poised mid-speech, looking like she’s trying so hard to keep it low-key that she’s burning out her own motor inside.
It was heartbreaking. The fall of a warrior and the rise of a doll. But they had something in common that day, despite those vast differences. These are two women who have learned to sit down. Each in her own version: ladylike, powerless really, the knees so easily parted. Despite her gleaming heels, Michelle’s ankles are turned with no sense of solid contact with the ground. She had gone high to sit with the woman who is the wife of the enemy, who is the enemy herself, who plagiarized her speech and got away with it, who seems to be thinking, Let them eat cake, who once famously posed eating a bowl of diamonds. It had all seemed so ridiculous, it couldn’t possibly come true.
But here Melania is in the White House having tea, like a modern Marie Antoinette, and you can’t see her feet. She is cut off below the knees, as if it’s not necessary for her to have an entire body. Her body, it could also be argued, is not really even her own. It’s been tweaked, reshaped, manufactured. And yes, it’s just a camera angle, and yes, women can do whatever they want to make themselves more beautiful, and yes we know she probably does have a full set of legs. But this is also history. This is a moment in time. This is a national crisis playing out in a yellow room the shape of a womb, when the stand-up rights women fought for are being bull-dozed off their feet, starting now.
It was tragic and it was wrong that Hillary conceded so quickly. There are plenty of pundits to bat that one around, and they have. It was tragic and wrong as well that Michelle, who fought valiantly during this latest war against male aggression, was reduced to sipping tea out of porcelain cups while giving her “successor” advice on child care. And yes, it’s almost as if Game of Thrones writers were consulted on the archetype of an evil son, the ultimate insult as presidential spawn. How about a boy in a miniature business suit sporting the face of a future serial killer? Imagine this boy, practicing war games on cats on the White House lawn. Wandering the second floor and pissing on portraits, if he can aim it that high, if Daddy has a moment to show him how.
I wonder if Michelle had the urge to hurl that porcelain cup, to shatter all that politesse, as she was sitting there. I hope she did. I wonder if her heart was beating hard against the wall of that interesting frock, and she took a deep breath and resolved to tough it out. I wonder if she knew the role she was playing, setting an example, only a terrible example. She has never looked more like a 1950s housewife, all the way down to those pumps, but without any irony, without any comeuppance. If a first lady is supposed to represent American women (this is a stretch, but it is true that in Michelle we had someone many of use could relate to), we were slammed into a chair and silenced that day. We were forced to watch ourselves turn demure. We were forced to submit to a farce.
Where does that leave us now? As citizen vaginas in a nation overseen by a sexual predator? With one meeting over two cups of tea and polite conversation we slid backwards through a time warp into the sudden recolonization of womanhood for the sake of the state. All those insults and anatomical assessments, a pending trial for rape, swept under the rug. Sit down and shut up.
Among other things rape is an act of war. The systematic rape of women in civil wars has the double accomplishment of rendering the husbands and fathers helpless and filling wombs with enemy spawn. In this country, the election was a war of hate and resentment against a black family in the White House, against women who speak out, against immigrants and Latinos and Jews and you can fill in all the blanks. But more than half the population are women. And the victory of President Rapist is one in which he and his sleek-necktied henchman will use every tool they can to shackle all of us back into those chairs and cups and tea.
These two women, Michelle and Melania, were at that moment, when that photo was taken, complicit in the overthrow. I’m not blaming them, especially not Michelle. I’m not going to trash Melania. But if we’re supposed to follow a model here, hers is dreadful. She has few apparent professional skills and appears to not have any facial expressions either: she is the chief representative of her husband’s favorite type: botoxed, girdled and owned, slender of thought and thigh.
And now we are marching towards the toppling of our reproductive rights faster than we can swivel our heads. We are seeing women jailed for abortion (Tennessee) and punished by having to bury their miscarriages (Indiana, Texas). Women are dying with their children in immigrant detention centers. Women are stabbing themselves with hangers. The man tapped to be in charge of the Department of Health and Human Services believes in the sanctity of a zygote. A seventeen year old had the nerve to ask Kellyanne Conway what it was like to work for a self-confessed sexual predator, and got such a strange answer that there was simply no responding. “For you to use sexual assault to try to make news here I think is unfortunate, but it also doesn’t matter because Donald Trump promised he’ll be a president of all Americans,” Conway said. Which begs the question as to what American women are in this scenario. And also, why we wind up quoting these people at all. Back to the issue of cognitive overload. Maybe being a vessel would be easier.
Roe v. Wade happened in 1973 and has been under relentless assault ever since. But with this particular predator president, this is it. The more women are forced to be pregnant and become mothers, the less we are educated, working, apt or able to fight back. It’s the Breitbart agenda, perpetrated by the scab-nosed, barn-jacketed emperor of American male spite. If women are barefoot, powerless, docile, mute, domesticated, and forced to wash clothes by hand, the men can do what the men want to do, which is plunder, steal, destroy, et cetera.
An assertion: that is why no one who enabled him to come to power (I’m not talking about the recount or third parties here, just the machine) really minded that Agent Orange had been accused of rape or bragged about groping women against their will. It’s not about locker room talk. It doesn’t matter what she said, or she said — after all, as he dismissed it, with that same baffling obliqueness that keeps all of us from seeing what we’re looking at. She would not be my first choice. The point is to put women down. To deny us rights. The methods, well, they’ll do what they have to do. This is indeed what Trump means by make America great again. A little rape never hurt anyone.
What can we do? This isn’t the hopeful part, unless exercising a mind and letting it deconstruct an official photograph, fueled on grief and caffeine, is an act of fighting back. Perhaps it is. The what-to-do’s and the now-we-march statements are all good too, and we will make them, and we will march. One of the first demonstrations against Louis XVI during the French Revolution was the Women’s March on Versailles. In the meantime, look at this photograph. It is a conflagration of rhetoric and symbols and it underscores a victory that aims to destroy women. In order to know what it is that turns our stomachs, we have to think about it, so I am.
And let’s not pretend that we’re dead. And let’s not forget. If no one can really find a way to stop the takeover, then let’s restage that photograph the way we do ersatz American Gothics. But this time, fuck the teacups. They should be smashed against those traitorous walls.