Over the weekend, Saturday Night Live host Scarlett Johansson starred as Ivanka Trump in a luxurious perfume commercial that took a sharp turn when it opened by describing the president’s eldest daughter as not just “beautiful” and “powerful,” but “complicit.”
“Complicit,” the ad intones, is “the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this … but won’t.” At one point, the voiceover smirks that Ivanka “doesn’t crave the spotlight, but we see her. Ohhh, how we see her.”
But SNL itself hasn’t “seen” Ivanka Trump since October.
The sketch series has rolled out plenty of ruthless impressions to take on the Trump administration — ones the president himself keeps tabs on and even openly hates. But it’s rarely taken on Ivanka, who reportedly wields significant influence on her father, sitting in on high-profile meetings and standing by as her Trump adviser husband Jared Kushner gets deeper into shaping America’s foreign policy.
But even during the campaign, when Ivanka regularly supported Trump on the trail, SNL never assigned a regular female cast member to play her. Instead, it’s let a rotation of female hosts slip on a straight blonde wig and smile blandly into the camera, the sleeker, more polished member of the Trump family to Alec Baldwin’s sputtering, pouting Donald.
In fact, in the weeks leading up to and following the election, SNL wrote women like Kellyanne Conway and Ivanka as repulsed bystanders who wanted nothing to do with Trump but were stuck by his side. Kate McKinnon’s Conway was constantly embarrassed and horrified by her oafish boss; when host Emily Blunt played Ivanka in October, she depicted her as a grossed-out voice of reason.
For as consistent as the show has been when impersonating male members of the Trump administration like press secretary Sean Spicer (played by Melissa McCarthy) or chief adviser Steve Bannon (played by the Grim Reaper), SNL’s treatment of the women in the president’s inner circle has been far more scattershot. It seems the show has really struggled to decide where it thinks Conway, Ivanka, and others actually stand.
But as this new perfume commercial and the past couple months have shown, SNL may be done treating the women in Trump’s inner circle as anything other than contributing players in the new administration’s ongoing chaos.
SNL’s Kellyanne Conway has gone from disgusted bystander to a woman ambitious enough to do anything — anything — to get what she wants
In December, when I wrote about how SNL was portraying many of the women in Trump’s life, I wondered why the show kept depicting Trump adviser Conway as a reluctant foot soldier in her boss’s battle against facts, when all signs in real life pointed to Conway being a bonafide enthusiast. I wondered why, when the tape of Trump saying he “grabs [women] by the pussy” had leaked back in October, SNL responded with a vengeful music video à la Beyoncé’s Lemonade, painting the picture that every woman surrounding Trump — including Conway, Ivanka, his wife Melania Trump, and his longtime adviser Omarosa Manigault — was disgusted by him. I wondered why the show kept up this wishful thinking even after the election, and all of these women stuck right by Trump just as they said they would.
SNL’s commentary kept skewing toward letting them off with a pass, assuming that deep down, they must see sense in the face of Trump’s bluster.
But since the inauguration, SNL has made a definite shift in how it thinks about Conway — and now Ivanka. The first sign came during the January 21 episode, when McKinnon’s Conway starred in her own version of Chicago’s “Roxie,” a song about being so hungry for fame and fortune that the person singing it would do literally anything to get her name in lights:
Aside from being an impressively dead-on Chicago parody, “Conway” marked a huge departure from SNL’s previous take on Trump’s go-to mouthpiece.
Before this sketch, McKinnon had played Conway as perpetually repulsed by Baldwin’s Trump. The week after the election, for example, one sketch saw Trump thank Conway for all her work; when he said he never would’ve won without her, her response was to shudder that she “think[s] about that every day.”
But as the Trump administration’s agenda has unfolded in increasingly chaotic fashion, SNL’s take on Conway has unraveled. A few weeks after “Conway,” a February 11 sketch painted Conway as so obsessed with appearing on cable news that she stalked CNN anchor Jake Tapper in a terrifying, Fatal Attraction kind of way:
Some wondered if this new approach wasn’t a little bit sexist, and I can’t totally disagree — which is a shame, because “Conway” could’ve at least sidestepped that critique if it had ditched the original Chicago line about everyone loving her hair, her lips, her boobs, her nose. But the overarching theme of these two sketches and SNL’s updated portrayal of Conway is that the show is officially done with having her placidly nod and smile by Trump’s side. Instead, it’s changed gears entirely to present her as a ruthlessly ambitious extension of Trump himself who’s willing to do what it takes to get her way.
And if that Chicago sketch was the turning point for the show’s depiction of Conway, “Complicit” represents the same kind of shift in how it’s approaching Ivanka.
Ivanka Trump has been largely absent from SNL as her father’s presidency has unfolded. That may be changing.
When we last saw SNL do a take on Ivanka in October, it was in the aforementioned Lemonade parody (which starred Cecily Strong as a supposedly over-it Melania Trump). Blunt played Ivanka as a deeply disappointed woman exuding righteous regret: “I’m supposed to be the brains here,” she trilled. “What the hell have I been thinking?” The week before, then-host Margot Robbie had played Ivanka on a political edition of Family Feud with a pleasant, if vacant smile.
This was before Trump’s inauguration, so neither impression or sketch ever touched the current belief that Ivanka is, as many news reports indicate, an important cog in the Trump administration’s self-described “fine-tuned machine.” And in fairness to SNL, impersonating Ivanka must be tricky — writing comedy about someone who makes being put together her literal business has to be a challenge, since of the show’s most cutting political commentary usually undermines a powerful person by emphasizing the most ridiculous parts of their character. (See: McCarthy neatly tearing Spicer apart with the power of angry hyperbole.)
Unlike many in her father’s administration, Ivanka has always been careful to keep her image pristine, respectable, and vaguely empowering, like the “friendship” section of the Hallmark aisle. Even when her name has been in the headlines, as it was when Conway urged people to “buy Ivanka’s stuff” in response to Nordstrom pulling her clothing line and the president angrily denouncing the retailer, Ivanka herself has remained silent, the better to let the dust settle without her taking part in the fray.
Ivanka’s respectability politics were an integral part of her father’s campaign, and now they’re part of his presidency. Her studiously nonthreatening quality reportedly helped sway the 53 percent of white women who voted for Trump, who reasoned that he might be uncouth, but he couldn’t be so bad if he managed to raise such an independent, elegant woman. As BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen put it in her deep dive on “Ivanka Voters,” Ivanka came to represent “a sanitized, assuring, classy Trump who [made] it less troublesome to vote for her father.”
SNL’s “Complicit” sketch is about that role entirely, painting Ivanka as a selfish rich girl who doesn’t actually care what her father is doing. Johansson throwing on a wig and gliding around a ballroom awash in gold leaf accents became far more pointed than any of SNL’s past Ivanka impressions as the voiceover declared that Trump’s daughter is “a woman who knows what she wants and knows what she’s doing” while questioning her description of herself as a feminist advocate with a simple, “but like, how?”
The sketch even calls back to Trump’s “grab ’em by the pussy” comments when the voiceover muses that Ivanka “probably should’ve bounced after the whole Access Hollywood bus thing, oh, well.”
With this ad, SNL has signaled that it’s ready to take a different tack with Ivanka, starting with puncturing her meticulous brand. “Complicit” might not have the belligerent, absurd tone of McCarthy’s Spicer, but it cuts deep into its subject nonetheless. And combined with McKinnon’s Conway taking a 180-degree turn into maniacal evil genius mode, it makes clear that SNL is done pretending that the women Trump trusts are in any way upset now that their guy is the president.