I hope you are ready to improve and expand your vocabulary today because I am about to drop a very complicated word. Complicit | kəm-’pli-sət | adjective. Merriam-Webster defines it as “helping to commit a crime or do wrong in some way”. One could, for example, say that Ivanka Trump is complicit in her dad’s mission to enrich himself at the expense of the US.
Indeed, Saturday Night Live said just that on, er, Saturday night. The comedy show, which has been making headlines in recent months with its lampooning of the Trump regime, featured a parody advert for an Ivanka Trump perfume. “Complicit: The fragrance for the woman who could stop all of this, but won’t.” As Ivanka, played by Scarlett Johansson, slinks sultrily through glamorous party scenes, a voiceover narrates: “She’s a woman who knows what she wants. And knows what she’s doing. Complicit.”
The sketch has caused quite a stir. Not least because it has finally exposed the shocking fact, long ignored by mainstream media, that many Americans, even the SNL-watching coastal elites, aren’t entirely sure what “complicit” means. The show spurred a large spike in searches for of the word online. As of Tuesday morning, it’s still among Merriam Webster’s top trending words – along with “neophyte”, “incredulous” and “refute”. I don’t want to refute the dictionary’s data but I am incredulous that so many Americans are lexical neophytes. As the president would say: sad!
Anyway, I’m not here to make a mockery of the American educational system. That’s Betsy DeVos’s job. I’m here to say: finally! |ˈfī-nəl-ē, fīn-lē | adverb. Finally, it looks as if we might have stopped giving Ivanka the benefit of the doubt, which she has enjoyed for far too long. Ivanka has certainly not been immune to criticism (see, eg, the 73,461 articles explaining why she is not a real feminist), but the liberal media has been eager to see the best in her. There seems to be a widespread desire to view Ivanka as Trump’s moral compass, a voice of reasonableness, a moderating guide.
Part of this is just desperation. Trump is a loose cannon; it’s calming to think there’s a safety mechanism in place ensuring he doesn’t go off. And so we clutch at any straws we can to reassure ourselves that Ivanka is smart, she hangs out with liberals, she’ll make everything OK.
And Ivanka has been very savvy in ensuring that there are just enough straws to clutch at. Last month, for example, it was reported that Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, persuaded Trump not to sign an executive order that would have rolled back LGBT rights. Much of this coverage was sickeningly gushing and quick to reassert the notion that Ivanka and Kushner are somehow independent from the president. The New York Times, for example, reminded us that: “Mr Kushner, a lifelong Democrat, and Ms Trump, an independent, travel in liberal social circles and have long supported LGBT rights.” Funnily enough, all this reporting about LGBT saviours Mr Kushner and Ms Trump seemed to stem from “multiple sources with knowledge of the situation”, which one imagines was probably Ms Trump’s PR people.
It’s also hard to think of Ivanka as being a terrible person when much of the criticism of her centred on her profiting from her lifestyle brands. Her peddling of kitten heels and suede tote bags and her saccharine-sweet Instagram account make her seem less like a woman complicit in the serious destruction of millions of people’s rights and more like a girl just trying to have fun, as her dad tramples democracy.
Ivanka Trump may have a jewellery and fashion line but her real brand is herself, and it is an impressive balancing act; there’s something there for everyone. A mum, a daughter, a wife, an educated businesswoman married to a Jew. She appeals to Trump’s heartland while simultaneously appeasing liberals. She is an attractive package.
And attractive, really, is the operating word. One wonders whether the media would have cut Ivanka quite so much slack if she weren’t so photogenic. We’re all affected by “beauty bias” and multiple studies show that we’re more likely to be forgiving towards attractive women who behave unfairly. Ivanka isn’t the only woman close to an authoritarian figure who has been protected by pretty woman privilege. Vogue published a flattering profile (A Rose in the Desert) on Asma al-Assad in 2012, for example, as her husband Bashar al-Assad was murdering Syrians. And we seem more keen to view Melania Trump as a victim than as possessing any agency. Her miserable demeanour at the inauguration led to #freemelania trending and widespread expressions of sympathy.
Ivanka and Melania don’t deserve our sympathy. They are not victims, they’re profiteers. And Ivanka deserves far better than our excuses. She is far more than a daughter stuck in a difficult position. She is an intelligent woman who has shrewdly benefited from sexist notions of women as nurturers rather than murderers. If we continue to allow her that narrative then we too are complicit.