Etiquette is more art than science, and yet most of us don’t need intuitive powers to guess that calling a woman “Horseface” simply isn’t done. And yet, President Trump dared to tread on the sacred ground where most horse riders wouldn’t, and called Stormy Daniels exactly that.
It’s the ultimate self-own, perhaps, to insult the image of a woman you allegedly slept with — but no matter. Trump assumedly meant it as a petulant gloat for the dismissal of Daniels’ defamation suit against him (and her getting stuck with his legal fees). The New York Times called his usage of the term “jarring.” Daniels called it misogynistic.
But it’s really just another day in the life of women, always one false move away from being called a horse face if she doesn’t comply with male directives. Still, aside from the obvious critique of boorish misogyny, why is it even a go-to sick burn in Trump’s mind, or anyone’s for that matter, to refer to a woman as one of the most distinguished, noble animals on earth?
After all, a horse face on a horse is beautiful and correct. Transplant that shiny, long visage onto a female body: not so much. But why?
It’s hard to pinpoint when horse face first shows up in the lexicon as a sick burn. The term horse-faced is listed in the dictionary as first being recorded between 1665 and 1675, and meaning “having a large face with lantern jaws and large teeth.”
For what it’s worth, the horse is the main form of transport at this time, and also 17th-century women have virtually zero rights, were scarcely educated, could not hold a job and gave birth roughly every two years of their life. It is not difficult to imagine that the primary metric by which they are judged is entirely physical. (Not that much has changed on that front.)
The accompanying dictionary usage examples from literature include mostly references to men, but in 1915, in Thomas Burke’s Night in London, a character asks: “Why does the horse-faced lady, with nice clothes, go to church on Sunday?” But even then it’s more coldly indifferent descriptor than mean-spirited zinger.
But it’s not until 1932 that we finally get a sense of the term as an insult specifically used toward women that reflects how viciously they’re being evaluated. That’s thanks to the Dorothy Parker short story “Horsie,” about a nurse and domestic servant named Miss Wilmarth who, according to her employers, looks an awful lot like a horse, much to everyone’s personal dismay.
Miss Wilmarth is not only described as unsightly and horse-like throughout the story, but at one point, her employers even call her Seabiscuit. Miss Wilmarth’s “long face was innocent, indeed ignorant, of cosmetics, and its color stayed steady,” Parker writes. In another description, her face is described as “truly complete with that look of friendly melancholy, peculiar to the gentle horse. It was not, of course, Miss Wilmarth’s fault that she looked like a horse. Indeed, there was nowhere to attach any blame. But the resemblance remained.”
It’s made clear in other descriptions of Miss Wilmarth, who is the only hired help to actually hold, speak to or care for her employers infant, that it’s tragic to look so homely and horse-like, not just for Miss Wilmarth, but for all of us, really. Her employer is said to cringe in her presence. “Women who were not softly lovely were simply not women,” Parker writes.
But there is somewhere to attach blame, and that’s Parker’s point: directly at ourselves. As we’ve long been told, beautiful women simply exist to be admired. Ugly women have to be good at something else to justify being allowed to exist at all. A woman being ugly, when women are meant to be nice to gaze upon, is a crime in itself.
But in Parker’s view, there’s a kind of moral transcendence here. Miss Wilmarth may look like a horse, but she in every way has the sturdy, reliable, honest, decent usefulness of a good person and employee, but especially, a mother.
At least in one instance, horse face is used a term of endearment. Mozart called his sister “horseface” affectionately in the footnote of his father’s letter to her in 1770 from Milan, writing:
Here I am, all yours, Mariandel, and I’m arse over tit with happiness that you had such a dreadfully fine time… a hundred kisses to you, big and small, on that marvellous horseface of yours.
But if you jump to present day, horse face remains a nasty jab used at any “unsightly” woman, but especially any public women — actresses, models, socialites — who don’t seem to quite make the cut on looks we’d expect from someone bandied about in front of a camera, begging us to put eyeballs in her direction, yet still daring to be seen, or heard.
In 2011, British tabloid The Sun rounded up a slew of female celebrities next to their actual-horse brethren with the headline, “Horse-Faced Stars Go From WAG to NAG.” Included are Amy Winehouse, Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, Hilary Swank, a bunch of other British women I’ve never heard of, and, probably the celebrity most likely to be compared to a mare, Sarah Jessica Parker.
Some women — game to act as beat cops for the patriarchy themselves — call other women horse faces, too. Such as when Ukrainian Barbie called Sarah Jessica Parker a horse face.
Women asked to be horse-faced as well. On a Reddit subforum called Roast Me, a woman seemingly uploaded a picture of herself, taunting, “Roast my horse face. There, I got you started. You’re welcome.” (It’s entirely possible someone else uploaded it.)
Men call other men horse-faces, too. Spanish soccer player Sergio Ramos was called horse-face as a taunt last year (cara poni — technically “pony face”) by his rival’s fans.
And men call other men’s girlfriend’s horse faces in headline-making brawls, like a Taiwanese guard who was arrested after calling a British man’s girlfriend a horse face. Earlier this year, MMA fighter Colby Covington called MMA fighter Mike Perry’s girlfriend a “ratchet horse face.”
Perhaps this is related to the fact that loving horses is more of a horse girl thing, and men who love horses — horse boys — know they’re dwelling in a powerfully feminine culture that’s intimidating, one that represents a kind of non-traditional beauty we don’t celebrate in non-equine women.
So if there’s any confusion left, it’s definitely not a compliment. It seems to be a subset of saying a woman has a dog face, or is a butterface — everything is hot “but her face.”
Horse faces — in women, not horses — are theoretically too long, too narrow, the eyes are often too close together, the teeth too prominent, and perhaps most importantly, they are too masculine, as female faces go.
After all, scientific studies of what makes a woman’s face most universally attractive (to dudes) find that it’s basically having a baby face. The face shape is feminine and almost child-like to a caricatured degree. It’s a round face and big doe eyes, just on an adult woman. The face shape is typically heart-shaped, and the distance between the features is important too. The eyes can’t be too close together and the nose, lips and chin have a babyish fullness.
Trump’s use of “horse face” is not surprising given his history of intense fixation on women’s looks, or his past as a pageant overlord. After all, Trump only really likes one type of woman: the beauty queen, preferably blond.
Stormy Daniels actually looks that part, but that’s key: Trump’s acting as an arbiter of beauty is merely a way of controlling women and keeping them in their place. He’s the arbiter, so you’re beautiful if he says so, and only until he says you’re not. So once she displeased him (ahem, tiny mushroom dick), she’s suddenly fat, ugly or both.
This aligns with men who catcall women on the street telling them to smile, beautiful, and then when they don’t, calling them an ugly slut. If we’ve collectively learned anything from the endless stories women share of catcalling, unwanted sexual contact and the like, it’s that women are, in effect, always putting up with this shit.
We inhabit a world where our looks are constantly evaluated by men, and where what is clearly subjective is treated as objectively quantifiable, depending on who we’re standing in front of that moment. In other words, this is actually a world where you could look like Julia Roberts, but for many totally unremarkable men Julia Roberts would never fuck, that simply wouldn’t make the cut. Because, you know, horse face.
Even the horse lovers don’t defend women, but horses. When someone called Big Brother’s Grace Adams a horse face, a fan (of horses) said that was an insult to horses. “They are lovely creatures and she is not,” they wrote.
But all told, horses get it done, and the responses to Trump indicate people don’t put much stock in his aesthetic judgments. Maybe in Dorothy Parker’s day, being a horse face might’ve been a dealbreaker on the life quotient. But nowadays, the president can call a woman Horseface at 8:04 a.m., and by 8:45 a.m., she can let the world know he’s a misogynist clown who’s just mad about his dick. Then we all get right back to work.