Donald Trump’s notoriously thin skin seems to be extra sensitive to those who would openly make fun of him. The president-elect has even started to regularly respond to Saturday Night Live’s impression of him, calling Alec Baldwin’s portrayal “biased” and “sad.”
Trump’s reliance on braggadocious rhetoric and punchy, often vicious catchphrases makes him an easy target for comedic exaggeration. But where SNL (and Baldwin) have had a field day sending up Trump and his vice president, Mike Pence (played by a smirky Beck Bennett), the show has had a much tougher time spoofing the women in Trump’s life.
The three most prominent of these women are like a trifecta of polish and relative poise, orbiting the president-elect like sleek moons around a gaseous giant.
There’s Ivanka Trump, his daughter and eagle-eyed business partner. There’s Kellyanne Conway, his former campaign manager and current spin master. And finally, there’s Melania Trump, his spotlight-averse wife who rarely exerted much energy on the campaign trail and won’t even move into the White House when her husband takes office in January.
As Trump carved out a space for himself in the Republican race with aggressive bluster, these women carved one for themselves in his campaign with patient calm. They remained unflappable even — and maybe especially — as Trump continued to spew sexist and racist rhetoric on the campaign trail and beyond.
Maybe that’s why some continue to believe they only stay by Trump’s side reluctantly. For example: As SNL and other comedy shows portray Trump as an idiot savant, they’ll also portray Conway, Melania, and especially Ivanka as propping him up through palpable disdain. The implication is clear: If they felt like they had a choice, they would have ditched Trump a long time ago. Now all they can do is make the best of a bad situation.
This characterization might make for easy punchlines, or help liberals swallow the idea of educated women supporting Trump. But his win — and Conway, Melania, and Ivanka’s continued active involvement in his transition to the presidency — has made it clear that presenting these women as regretful doesn’t have any roots in reality.
As played by comedians, the women in Trump’s life openly resent their ties to the president-elect
In October, when the Washington Post got hold of a 2005 recording featuring Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy” on Access Hollywood, many speculated that it would be the straw that broke the candidate’s back. Republican politicians began rescinding their endorsements. Polls reflected a nosedive in his approval rating among women voters. Hillary Clinton trounced Trump in debates, using the Access Hollywood recording as her, uh, trump card.
But what about the women Trump actually knows and interacts with daily — how did they respond? If you looked to comedy, the answer seemed to be that they, too, were horrified.
SNL doesn’t have an in-house Ivanka impersonator — a situation the show will probably have to rectify sooner rather than later — but in the meantime, several guest hosts have taken a crack at it. On October 1, Margot Robbie played Ivanka as a windswept robot on Celebrity Family Feud. One week later, when Emily Blunt hosted on October 8, the Access Hollywood tapes had just leaked, so Blunt’s Ivanka had a bit more of a forceful point of view.
Blunt’s Ivanka joined Cecily Strong’s Melania for a pretaped sketch devoted to the idea that the various women in Trump’s life would love to distance themselves from him, if only they could.
Titled “Melanianade,” the sketch is a parody of Beyoncé’s stunning woman scorned epic Lemonade. “Here lies my last nerve, Donald,” Strong declares as it begins; she and Blunt are then accompanied by Kate McKinnon’s Conway, Sasheer Zamata’s Omarosa Manigault, and Vanessa Bayer’s Tiffany Trump as they all sing about being “tired of” Trump.
A similar depiction of Melania, one that presented her as a woman who’s so put off by Trump that being married to him is like being held hostage, cropped up on Stephen Colbert’s Late Show.
In that case, Laura Benanti dropped by to play Melania’s wide-eyed disbelief that she married someone so sexist, but part of the joke was that she couldn’t say as much, thanks to an unseen coach coaxing her out of her own disgust.
In the weeks since the election, SNL has maintained this characterization, most notably with McKinnon’s impression of Conway. Every time she’s onscreen, she wears a horrified grimace. While Trump tweets and panics, Conway looks on in disgust — and in the rare instances that she gets a punchline, it’s to express regret that she ever got involved with Trump’s campaign in the first place.
In a November 19 sketch, for example, Trump turns to Conway and says, in earnest, “I wouldn’t be president if it wasn’t for you.”
“I think about that every day,” she replies, through gritted teeth.
More recently, in a December 3 sketch about the president-elect’s incessant tweeting (which, naturally, earned some derisive tweets from him), Trump turned to Conway for confirmation that Osama bin Laden is, in fact, dead.
“Yes, yes, he is dead,” she says. “Just like my soul and all of my hair.”
It’s a funny joke, but a weird one, given that the real Conway has spent every day since the election beaming about Trump’s victory, whether in forums with her former opponents or in her Twitter bio (“We Won”) — and she doesn’t even have an official role in Trump’s transition or administration yet.
Making fun of the reality we have found ourselves in at the end of 2016 — with Trump set to preside over a deeply split country — is hard. Wanting to find a way to joke about Conway’s relationship with Trump is understandable, and it’s easy to trace SNL’s tendency to temper the chaos of a character like Baldwin’s Trump with some semblance of a “straight man,” which by default became McKinnon’s Conway.
Still: SNL’s ongoing depiction of Conway as a reluctant foot soldier and the “Melanianade” bit in particular make it clear that the show truly wants to believe that behind closed doors, these women recognize Trump for what he is and reject everything he stands for.
But they don’t — and pretending otherwise at this point is willful ignorance of just how widespread Trump’s support actually is.
Painting Trump’s inner circle as regretful and disgusted isn’t a spoof of reality — it’s a liberal fantasy
One of the most striking lessons to come out of the 2016 election deals with the vast gulf between how liberals expected many Americans to respond to various headlines about Trump and what many Americans might actually be thinking.
When I first heard the recording of Trump bragging to Billy Bush about being able to grab women “by the pussy” because he’s famous, I — like so many others — thought his campaign was toast. Like the Republican politicians who started jumping ship, I was sure that bragging about sexual assault would offend enough people to sink his chances of becoming president. When more than a dozen women came forward to accuse Trump of assault, it felt like the final nail in his campaign’s coffin.
More specifically, I was sure these revelations would offend enough women to sink his chances. And I wasn’t alone. Anti-Trump campaigns leaning on sentiments like “women can stop Trump” revved into high gear, pleading with women to reject his sexism once and for all, no matter their party affiliation.
Surely, these campaigns reasoned, women would hear Trump’s words and want to distance themselves with all their might. But as election exit polls revealed, that wasn’t entirely the case. Nearly half of all women voters — 41 percent — cast their ballots for Trump. And this overall figure includes 52 percent of white women voters — the demographic Ivanka and Melania made appeals to throughout the campaign.
So while the idea of some kind of mass feminist defection from Trump’s base and inner circle might be a comforting fantasy for some, it ignores the fact that many women did and do support Trump.
It ignores Ivanka’s huge role in smoothing over her father’s rougher edges to help him appeal to women, and the fact that she herself has acknowledged — as the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino pointed out in an excellent piece on Ivanka’s 2009 self-help book — that she has more in common with her father than not.
It ignores Melania’s willful dismissal of her husband’s aggressive online demeanor as she calls for an end to online bullying. It ignores Conway’s unwavering commitment to defending Trump’s lies and behavior by spinning and stretching the truth, often into full-blown lies.
It ignores all three women’s apparent willingness to overlook and even defend Trump’s consistent sexism and bigotry to get him and his policies into the White House.
No matter how frequently SNL and other shows deliver comedic characterizations of Ivanka, Melania, and Conway as more aware, more feminist, more appalled than the man they supported for the presidency, the women encircling Trump have all remained firmly — and even enthusiastically — in his corner. Ignoring their roles in his victory is ignoring the truth about how Trump was elected, and how his support system will continue to package his presidency with a reassuring bow.