When Counselor to the President Hope Hicks trended on Twitter this month because of rumors that she was sleeping with senior Trump adviser Brad Parscale, #Resistance liberals went wild and a certain kind of joke began steadily racking up retweets:
Shortly afterward, other liberals chided their fellow Trump Detesters by pointing out that these jokes were misogynistic and slut-shaming. “I can’t stand all the Hope Hicks stuff about her alleged sex and romantic life,” tweeted journalist Yashar Ali, who worked on Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign, in a characteristic example. “It’s misogynistic. Call me old-fashioned but I think the standards for this stuff should be applied across the board regardless of who these comments are made about.”
It’s a perennial flare-up on social media. No matter where you are in the world, a high-profile female conservative is mocked and criticized for her appearance or behavior in sexist terms — as with the example of Hicks — and then liberals attempt to rein in their own by reminding them of their supposed commitments to the basic tenets of liberal feminism, namely that you shouldn’t use sexist tropes to criticize women even if those women are politically despicable.
Or, in a variation of the format, the target is a female Democrat and liberals come to her defense even more zealously, as with the recent case of Kamala Harris being mocked for getting too much Botox.
The sexist jokes are boring and unfunny — though they’re delivered like they’re devastating zingers, which is obviously cringeworthy — but it can be even more jarring to watch the influx of earnest liberal scolds arriving to deliver their lectures about proper etiquette when it comes to criticizing female politicians. It’s not just that these lectures are didactic and condescending, or that they verge on what writer Tom Whyman has called the civility fetish, or a “demand to treat ‘even those we profoundly disagree with’ with respect,” which he says “often functions as a way of shutting people up, of shutting argument down.”
The whole thing feels disingenuous, because the liberal opposition to misogyny is always surface-level. You can see this in the way that liberals make strange allowances for Democrats who treat women poorly, as the examples of Tara Reade and Monica Lewinsky make clear. But on an even more fundamental level, the world that liberals want isn’t a world that’s good for the vast majority of women, which is why their opposition to misogyny occurs largely in the realm of etiquette, and predominantly concerns the treatment of powerful women.
After all, most women want to live in a world where you don’t have to wear diapers on the job because stopping for a bathroom break might cost your billionaire boss a tiny bit of profit, or where you don’t have to be saddled with thousands of dollars of medical debt because you needed to give birth or have your breast cancer treated. Most women would prefer, too, that they weren’t stuffed in prisons for minor drug offenses, and that their children weren’t wrenched from them at the border, their loved ones not obliterated by drone strikes.
But the establishment Democrats most beloved by #Resistance liberals — Biden, Obama, the Clintons, Kamala Harris, et al. — are weak, and sometimes barely distinguishable from Republicans, on the economic, foreign policy, immigration, reproductive justice, health and criminal justice issues that affect women’s lives most.
This doesn’t stop liberals from shilling for them and holding them up as champions of women’s rights, regardless of their records on issues like abortion access. For the liberal, politics is a game of personalities, in which figures like Trump are declared mortal enemies, denounced in hysterical terms and then limply mocked (the Fanta Fuhrer! The Cheeto-in-Chief! Drumpf! Putin’s cock holster!), while his Democratic opponents are held up as saviors, despite offering no meaningful policy alternatives to improve the position of women as a whole — most of whom aren’t wealthy liberal feminists and #GirlBosses, but workers.
No wonder, then, that it feels somewhat hollow to watch online liberals rush to defend female politicians from sexist commentary. It’s an exhausting spectacle that’s disconnected from the reality of most women’s lives.
Of course, at the level of baseline decency, the liberals do have a point: Women shouldn’t be shamed for the same sexual behavior for which men are given a free pass; it’s not fair that they’re disproportionately criticized at the level of appearance; and they should be able to do their jobs without their contemporaries calling them “bitches.” These aren’t trivial matters, and it’s difficult and demoralizing to organize with leftist men who pretend they are.
But there’s a kind of dissonance in watching former Hillary Clinton campaigners, Kamala Harris stan accounts and people with #Biden2020 in the bio deliver lectures about how slut-shaming Hope Hicks is unforgivably sexist and why mocking Harris for getting Botox is a serious feminist transgression. Ultimately, their most beloved political icons will reliably stand in the way of actual progress for powerless women, which makes sexist jokes about politicians feel like the least of our worries — and liberals like the cheapest of allies.