Last weekend, Kellyanne Conway sat down with "CBS This Morning" for an in-depth one-on-one interview designed to make the political operative described by Samantha Bee as President Donald Trump’s “omnipresent spokes-cobra” seem less of a sentient Two Truths and a Lie drinking game and more like an actual human. In this interview, Conway appeared to be testing the waters for a new Kellyanne Katchphrase™ when she claimed that she and other conservative women are subject to “a triple standard” by the media, specifically “traditional feminist outlets.”
“We are constantly going back to where I sat, the presumptive negativity of what I wore, or what I said, and I do think it’s a triple standard,” Conway told correspondent Norah O’Donnell. “People talk about a double standard of what a woman wore or said, but the triple standard is that conservative women are cast aside many times by traditional feminist outlets and individuals who control most of the media.”
Kellyanne Conway is just being Kellyanne Conway here — testing out a new verbal trinket to see if it sounds true-ish enough, albeit in some fact-detached way, to catch on, without too much attention being paid to what it actually means. (A “triple standard” is much slipperier than the ham-fisted “alternative facts,” that’s for sure.) If you don’t think too much about it — and Conway is banking on the people at home doing just that — a “triple standard” definitely sounds like it could be a thing. After all, in this age of our collective slow-mo apocalypse, it only makes sense that we’ve suddenly found a way to make a bad thing exponentially worse.
It might be a fool’s errand to put “truth” and “Kellyanne Conway” in the same sentence, but does her claim that liberal women hold their conservative counterparts to an even higher standard than they are held have any basis in reality?
First, let’s establish that, yes, Conway is subject to the same double standards that all women in the public eye face. Who the hell isn’t? Any high-profile man’s visit to the UN to speak out against genocide would be reported upon with a dignified headline, but Amal Clooney, by virtue of being married to a famous actor, was “show[ing] off her baby bump” — an odious phrase — instead.
A man in the public eye is expected to wear a suit that fits; women have to navigate a minefield of sartorial choices that can backfire at any time. Take Conway’s Technicolor Inauguration Dreamcoat, which turned so many viewers into off-brand "Fashion Police" deputies, yours truly included, and those barbs were dutifully aggregated by the digital press. In hindsight, the gleeful evisceration of Conway's red, white and blue Gucci jacket strikes me as a petty and inadequate outlet for the high emotions of what felt like a day of mourning for American ideals of equality and fairness. It is not a harbinger, let us hope, of the level of discourse we expect from ourselves for the next four years.
But even in less emotionally fraught times, the online culture of snark is merciless as a rule, even to the conventionally attractive. BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen sums up some primary themes of the ongoing sexist criticism of Conway:
Memes most often compare her to Cruella de Vil, Skeletor, and Golem [sic]; one calls her a “Sewer Rat Barbie” while another viral Instagram image compares her complexion to a withered banana. The only woman her age who’s received similarly vicious treatment is, ironically, Madonna. Both Conway and Madonna have become some version of what theorists call “the monstrous feminine” — the woman who chooses not to “act her age,” fails to discipline her body to look younger than that age, or refuses to disappear entirely.
The basic-cable truth is that Kellyanne Conway is not an unattractive woman — if she looked like Steve Bannon in a dress she wouldn’t be making the news show rounds defiling principles of language and truth to begin with, and that's also a double standard at work. It must be noted, however, that the men of the current administration aren't escaping their own superficial critique. Trump’s body — specifically, his ass — has of late been compared unfavorably to that of Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, a man young enough to be his son. Bannon’s looks are pointlessly denigrated (one memorable tweet: “steve bannon looks like if michael shannon did a super-size-me where he only ate cigarettes”), and “basic henchman” Stephen Miller has been mocked by late-night comedians as “a young [Smurfs villain] Gargamel” and “Sméagol in a suit” and “two-thirds of the way to [elderly ‘Simpsons’ evil mogul] Montgomery Burns.” (Memorable tweet: “Stephen Miller is slender man,” referencing the ominous, fictional boogeyman of Internet lore.)
While there’s undeniable schadenfreude in highlighting Donald Trump’s physical shortcomings, given his long history of reducing women to the sum of their hypothetical or actual beauty pageant scores, of all the things that are grotesque about Steves Bannon and Miller, their fairly average bodies and faces don’t even rate. The same can and should be said for Conway. It should go without saying that we don’t fight the double standard by holding men to the same beauty norms to which women have been beholden, regardless of what these specific men are doing to degrade equality, freedom and quality of life in our country, but rather by doing away with these unreasonable and irrelevant guideposts entirely. But on the morning of Nov. 9, "when they go low, we go high" — more on that in a bit — went right out the window. If our fellow Americans wanted an insult comic in the White House, the consensus seemed to be, let's get to heckling.
On the same day of Conway’s televised interview, The New York Times’ Susan Chira examined the sexist political criticism that dogged Hillary Clinton throughout the election and its parallels to how Conway gets dragged by the liberal public over her clothes, hair, skin and bone structure. That misogyny is a problem on the liberal side of the aisle as well as on the right comes as a surprise to exactly no one, least of all Hillary Clinton and her female supporters. Nevertheless, the Times, as they say, is on it, noting that some criticisms of “where [Conway] sat” in that now-infamous photo of her kneeling on a couch in the Oval Office took on a sexualized tone:
Witness the furor over her sitting on her knees on a couch in the Oval Office during a reception for presidents of historically black colleges. While she drew fire for disrespect, some of the criticisms included digs about her spreading her legs and raunchy allusions to oral sex, Monica Lewinsky and Bill Clinton.
Welcome to Misogyny 101: A female human can be shamed equally for appearing both too sexually alluring and insufficiently sexually alluring. It starts during puberty, if not earlier, and ends perhaps only at death.
The "on her knees" jokes about Conway were cheap and disgusting, and as the Bill Clinton reference makes clear, not technically partisan. But she was subjected to an outsize volume of online vitriol over that photo from Democrats and other ostensibly progressive people because she's their despised political foe. Rude comments about her hair, clothes and face seem to come easier to people who are legitimately terrified by the damage the regime she represents has already begun to wreak — go figure. (Of course, Conway won't acknowledge the role she's played in creating that relationship.)
There are Kellyanne's two half-truths about the left's overzealous criticism of where she sat and what she wore, so here's the big lie: There's no double, let alone triple, standard applied whatsoever to what she says. Her job is to defend Donald Trump's policies and actions, and the reception is going to be the same no matter whose mouth, to use a notorious example, the dangerous Islamophobic lie of "the Bowling Green Massacre" comes out of.
But let's go back for a second to that image of Conway kneeling: The group of HBCU presidents, their suits and demeanor as beyond reproach as our racist society has demanded they be, contrasted sharply with Conway's casual rumpus-room perch. Of course there's a triple standard at work in America. Stop looking at Conway and find the other women in that photo — the university presidents who have had to battle additional rules, racist assumptions and unfair metrics by virtue of being not male and not white. The double standard paints passionate men as "engaged" while women are "overly emotional"; the triple standard for black women moves straight to "angry."
Michelle Obama's "when they go low, we go high" isn't just an aspirational motto, it's an extra layer of protection against white people who have been watching for eight long years for any signs of her composure slipping because then they feel justified in believing all black women are unpredictable and dangerous, with potentially lethal consequences. The triple standard has hard economic consequences, too: On average, black and Hispanic women have a larger wage gap with white men than white women do.
Donald Trump contributes to the triple standard every time he paints nonwhite lives as intrinsically linked to violence and menace. Those who find what Conway willingly and cheerfully sells to be terrifying and repugnant can and should knock it off when it comes to slamming her fashion sense, while remaining vigilant against her words. If she wears a lampshade on her head and turns cartwheels across the South Lawn, who cares? Focusing on those superficial and inconsequential details only keeps us from seeing the whole, damning picture.