Oh boy, it is an election year. You can smell it in the air: desperation and bullshit. It is also a particularly virulent, vicious election year — emotions are running high in a way that seems to be relatively unparalleled historically. Both the Republicans and the Democrats believe that the election of the other party’s candidate would be the death of modern American democracy (and maybe it would, I can’t see the future).
Regardless of our individual thoughts on the candidates, we ought to all be able to agree that it is unacceptable to utilize a candidate’s physical appearance in order to somehow belittle or undermine their political prowess. While we often see this with female candidates, this has been an insidiously common tool used against Trump. Objectification is unacceptable when it happens to Clinton, Palin, Obama, or Trump.
SNL perhaps best summed up the way Clinton and Palin have had their appearances used against them — in a sketch from the 2008 election, with Tina Fey as Palin and Amy Poehler as Clinton, Palin mentions being called “pretty, attractive, beautiful” while Clinton talks about being called “harpy, shrew.” This kind of rhetoric consistently permeates the campaigns of female candidates and while “beautiful” masquerades as more complementary than “shrew”, each undermines the candidates political abilities, opting instead to focus on her physical attributes which, shockingly, have exactly no bearing on a woman’s ability to be a badass.
In the less-mainstream media, memes and cartoons of Obama often cross the line from “racially-insensitive” to “overtly and unapologetically racist.” Obama is objectified by his race, in much the same way Clinton and Palin are objectified because of their gender. Critique based on objectification is not a legitimate critique. Clinton and Palin are not less-qualified politicians because of their gender, and Obama is certainly not less qualified because of his race.
Perhaps most interesting this election year has been the almost overwhelming critique of Donald Trump’s physical appearance. I have myriad opinions about Trump (spoiler alert: I don’t like him), but these opinions are based on actual words he has said and not his physical appearance.
A couple weeks ago, statues of Trump popped up in cities all across the country. It was an “art” installation entitled “The Emperor Has No Clothes” and the “artists” chose to portray Trump with a round stomach, and a very small penis. Many liberal progressives were thrilled by this turn of events — so much so that my Facebook feed was almost entirely naked Trump statues.
This installation is a problem for about a thousand reasons. Like Clinton, Palin, and Obama, Mr. Trump is not a lesser politician because of his physical appearance. To objectify him, no matter how much you dislike him, is unacceptable and demoralizing.
I can understand why someone might think it is acceptable to make fun of the size of Trump’s penis, because he did open that door (a little bit) when he mentioned the size of his hands. However, his body is his own, and he can objectify himself as much as he wants — it is still unacceptable for other people to do that. Also, the joke of “small penis equals less of a man/person” is deeply troubling. It buys into toxic masculinity, that a man’s value is in his fertility. On top of that, the idea that being a man means having a massive cock is deeply transphobic. I know some really badass men with vaginas, and they are not less than other men because of their genitals.
Part of the joke was the size of Trump’s stomach. Hey, y’all, fatness isn’t funny. The roundness of Trump’s stomach does not, in any way, predict his ability to be President. William Howard Taft weighed over 350 pounds, and that did not inhibit is presidential abilities. A presidential candidate could be an actual amorphous blob, and they could still be entirely qualified to be president.
Perhaps the most unfortunate part of the whole situation is that it was coming from the supposedly body-positive, progressive left. Y’all, body positivity is for everyone, not just people you agree with. Dismantling oppressive, ableist, misogynistic, toxic power structures requires liberation for everyone, not just the people I agree with.
I don’t care what Trump says about his own penis — it will not impact my opinion on his abilities as a politician, and honestly it shouldn’t impact yours either. I do care what other people say about Trump’s body, not because it impacts my opinions on him, but because I believe that people’s spirits are far more important than their body, and it is disheartening when people who demand equality for other bodies use a politician’s body as political ammunition.
Regardless of our opinions on Trump and Clinton, stooping to political critique based on physical appearance only highlights our own pettiness, and serves to bolster the power structures that oppress fat bodies, and thin bodies, and disabled bodies, and women’s bodies, and brown and black bodies.