Since they were old enough to understand words, I’ve been trying to teach my daughters the nature of permanence, as it relates to the World Wide Web. The Internet is forever, I tell them; the public is brutal, and they need to keep their clothes on whenever a camera-equipped device is around. Those spring break pictures on Facebook will be the first thing the Senate Judiciary Committee sees when it’s deciding whether to approve their nomination.
At least, that’s what I grew up believing. After all, Miss America Vanessa Williams was forced to give up her crown in 1984 after nude photos of her appeared in Penthouse. Nudity had consequences and, for women, they weren’t good ones.
But now, in the worlds of politics and pop culture, boudoir shots and even sex tapes have gone from guaranteed embarrassments to occasional assets to, sometimes, barely mattering at all. Watching the events of the past few weeks unfold, I wonder if maybe I’ve gotten it wrong. When is a naked picture a problem for a woman? Maybe never — so long as she’s the one wielding the camera, or she looks good, and her husband’s not upset.
As the world knows, last week, our Republican presidential contenders quit tussling over whose private parts are bigger, and moved on to the equally compelling question of whose wife is hotter.
To briefly recap: Before last Tuesday’s primaries, a “super PAC” called — you really can’t make this stuff up — Make America Awesome ran ads on social media targeting Mormon voters in Utah. The spots showed images of Donald J. Trump’s wife, from a 2000 photo shoot with British GQ. “Meet Melania Trump. Your Next First Lady,” read the text, over a shot of a sultry, nude Mrs. Trump, curled up on a fur. “Or, You Could Support Ted Cruz on Tuesday.” (Ted Cruz was not pictured.)
Even though the ad didn’t come from the Cruz camp, Mr. Trump was furious — which was more than a little ironic, given the vigor with which he’s been posting provocative shots of his nemesis, the Fox anchor Megyn Kelly, who posed for GQ in a short black slip dress and red high heels. Mr. Trump has retweeted one of his supporters, who called Ms. Kelly a “bimbo,” and has said she lacks the gravitas to question the candidates. Evidently, in Trumplandia, being scantily clad means you’re no longer qualified to be a journalist, but being naked means you’re perfectly qualified to be first lady.
And on it went. On Tuesday, Mr. Trump slammed “Lyin’ Ted” for being behind the Melania ad, and threatened to “spill the beans” on Mr. Cruz’s wife, Heidi. The next day, no beans were spilled, but Mr. Trump retweeted a meme of a picture of Melania, looking appropriately model-rific, juxtaposed beside Heidi Cruz, looking probably a lot like I do when I need my roots touched up and I’ve had it with my kids. “No need to spill the beans,” text with the photos said. “The images speak for themselves.”Continue reading the main story
And what do those images say, exactly? Oh, right: Mr. Trump is obviously better qualified to run our country, because his wife was a professional model.
Mr. Cruz was swift to defend Heidi Cruz’s honor, tweeting, “Donald, real men don’t attack women. Your wife is lovely, and Heidi is the love of my life.” It sounded chivalrous, until Mr. Cruz kept talking. He called Mr. Trump a “sniveling coward” and a “New York bully,” and praised Heidi as “an unbelievable mom.” Mr. Cruz denied that his wife was the object that Trump supporters were calling her — an unattractive woman — by saying that, in fact, she was a different kind of object: the love of his life, important and valuable primarily in terms of her relationship to him, and “off bounds,” and in need of protection, just like their children.
By Friday, Mr. Cruz had moved from defending his wife’s honor to defending his own, calling a tabloid report that accused him of extramarital affairs “garbage” and blaming the Trump camp for the story. Which means that soon the Twitter mob will probably stop scrutinizing Heidi Cruz and start in on the rumored mistresses.
In this strangest of primary seasons, women exist primarily in terms of their relationships to the men they marry or question or critique. They can either be beauties or beasts or “the love of my life.” They can be “crazy” or “losers,” “fat pigs” or “dogs.” They can be mothers and daughters. They can be the currency with which you buy voters’ belief in your machismo and alpha-maleness, or they can be the sand you kick in the face of a “New York bully.” In every case, whether they are assets or liabilities, they are objects. In no case are they people.
What’s the political significance of a naked lady? When the Utah ad went public, it wasn’t long before the predictable calls to leave candidates’ families out of the fray were joined by charges of slut-shaming, and the insistence that a grown woman can pose as she wishes; that as long as it’s her choice, it’s empowering.
Melania Trump might have chosen to pose for GQ, but there’s nothing empowering about the way her husband’s opponents have repurposed her modeling portfolio as revenge porn. Which is precisely what Mr. Trump has done with Megyn Kelly’s GQ shots. Neither woman deserves to suffer for having made the choice to get in front of a camera.
MY guess is that neither one will. Twenty years ago — or even as recently as 2004, when the Federal Communications Commission fined CBS $550,000 after Janet Jackson’s Super Bowl halftime “wardrobe malfunction” — to be female and naked was to be afraid. But now, our biggest reality TV star is Kim Kardashian, a woman who spun a sex tape into gold, a woman who posts nude selfies, then twirls on her haters, while her fans come roaring to her defense, claiming that she has subverted the male gaze because she’s the one creating the image and she’s the one sharing the shot.
When a collection of naked celebrity pictures were spirited out of the cloud, then leaked to the public in 2014, it was the hacking that shocked people, not the existence of the pictures. Not even a Disney princess like Vanessa Hudgens had her career derailed by repeated leaked nudes.
The would-be first ladies will survive nudity, and mockery, but both of them have been diminished, stripped of their personhood and reduced to objects. They have been flattened into human baseball cards, to be rated and traded, compared and assessed, and their worth depends not on who they are or what they do, but on how good they look and how much their husbands love them.
It’s enough to make a liberal feminist, a mere spectator to the Republican debates, long for the days of Carly Fiorina. At least then the Republican primary could boast one woman who was a candidate, not just a wife and a mother, or a face and a figure — a person, instead of a thing.
Jennifer Weiner is the author, most recently, of the novel “Who Do You Love,” and a contributing opinion writer.Follow The New York Times Opinion section on Facebook and Twitter, and sign up for the Opinion Today newsletter.