Meeting with (an) Angela

Ivanka Trump, of all people and to the great surprise and disbelief of many Germans, especially women — is representing the United States at the G20 Women’s Summit (Women20). For many German women, themselves in a nation with a high socioeconomic mobility factor and relatively strict laws governing gender and sex discrimination, Ivanka symbolizes two outmoded approaches to careers: her father, the president of the United States, is himself anti-feminist, and Ivanka’s rise to power is, according to those interviewed for the story, an example of nepotism, not talent or worth.

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For one event, Ivanka chose a formfitting, scuba knit, high-necked sheath dress. The outfit aligns with Ivanka’s many “rules” for her own look: a retrograde sheath dress, close-fitting; a high neck for demure presentation. I’ve looked at her style What’s missing in Ivanka’s closet and Anne Helen Petersen’s work on Buzzfeed has been terrifically analytical . So the grammar of Ivanka’s choice of clothing in this setting is predictable, to say the least. Angela Merkel, a woman who has held enormous power for over twenty years, has very different body language than Ivanka, a woman whose power rests in her careful cultivation of a close relationship with her volatile father.

washington-us-17th-mar-2017-ivanka-trump-l-speaks-next-to-german-chancellor-hw847eMerkel sits, relaxed and leaning slightly forward, her characteristic slight slump evident, and with her face tensed slightly in the act of focusing on the unseen speaker. This is a politician gifted in actually listening. Her shoulders at a slight angle, she’s unself-conscious and alert. Ivanka, on the other hand, is tense. Her hands are clasped in front of her and in an effort to relax them, she’s worried her thumb between her fingers. She sits as if she’s concerned that her stomach remain flat — a worry that almost every woman can attest to, if one has to sit in a tight-fitting sheath dress. And that’s not the trained poise of a dancer, by the way. I’ve read numerous flattering accounts of Ivanka that credit her “dance training” for her supposedly-good posture. Actually, I think she struggles with her posture and, while she is aware of its weaknesses, she finds it difficult to overcome a slight trumpian lean forward.

On the right is Ivanka in high heels, walking in the inaugural procession, and on the left, Anne Hathaway, an actress with two decades of formal, classic dance training. Hathaway’s posture is unfailingly perfect, whether in heels or flats, and she has a fluidity of movement that gives her a relaxed appearance. Both women are caught mid-stride, their feet, perched in heeled shoes — Ivanka’s are a bit lower. Ivanka’s posture is fighting that inclination to hunch forward, and she is, I think, tightening her stomach in too much  (she’d had a baby just a few weeks earlier, so this would be natural, common and utterly predictable — but there are many photographs of Ivanka walking with this particular position to her head and legs) and so she lurches a bit, tilting backwards and jutting her head stiffly. Hathaway, who typically looks slightly downwards as she walks (she lives in New York City, where even the wealthiest residents must keep watch for subway grates, errant dog poop, and more), has the relaxed neck of a well-trained dancer, heels or no heels.

In the photograph of Ivanka next to Merkel we see an adult woman out of her depth, nervous, tense with her “listening” face on and while she pretends to focus on the speaker, is in fact racing through concerns of her own, from how she appears to others to what is coming next on the agenda for herself. She looks like a person unused to listening to others; her attention is taken up with worries over her own shaky power. Merkel’s body language is that of an intellectual mind interested in workings of other people’s mind. Anyone who teaches knows the difference between the face of a student at a loss to understand what is going on, and the face of a person invested and interested in the proceedings in front of them.

Ivanka’s posture and face and her choice of an outfit that narrowly adheres to her own heavily-marketed “personal style” reveal the ways she is uneasy with the power she has managed to obtain. She is not conflicted about the power — in interviews she seems unconcerned by the justness of it or the fitness of herself to hold the fate of millions in her hands — but in public she does present herself as intellectually and personally unprepared, untrained, and unsure. In a government stocked with extraordinary people who are highly trained, deeply knowledgeable, and experienced in international relations, it is indeed surprising to place an inexperienced, nervous, self-absorbed young woman in such a role. In fact, it’s cruel to do so.

In 2014, Emma Watson, a young actress best known for her decades’-long work in the Harry Potter films, gave a notable speech to the UN about feminism and women’s rights. Her choice of outfit– interesting, confident, and balanced between tradition and innovation — was itself notable  The dress, described in the press as  “white,” “oatmeal,” and “silver,” is a waisted coat dress with a unique dramatically-folded skirt with an asymmetrical hem. The detailing on the dress echoed a man’s suit while the skirt was a distinctly modern approach to a dress. It also allowed for reasonably easy movement, with a fuller skirt that hit relatively low on her legs – at its highest point it hits her knees, and dips down to mid-calf. The long narrow sleeves and lapeled front give the ensemble a formal look, not quite business style but clearly meaning business.

The point here is not to diminish either woman’s role by focusing on their clothing choices but to instead consider the ways that clothing and style reflect the personality and the intentions of the wearer. Ivanka’s uneasy grasp on power, derived not through her merit but through relations she has to a man with much more power, makes her choices of self-presentation all the more important. Ivanka’s power derives from her personal, intimate relationship with her father — so analyzing her personal style is warranted, as her actions and results have almost nothing to do with her position of power. Watson’s status as a rich (money wholly earned through her hard work on eight films over ten years), white woman is privileged but also, as her speech acknowledged, a challenge. It gives her an extraordinary platform but her fame as an actress threatens to obscure her message. So her choice of clothing — since her power derives in part from her global audience’s acceptance of her “adult self” — is very important. Perhaps Watson’s fame, based on her work and dedication and her willingness to formally train herself (she famously attended and graduated from Brown University) has paid off. She is far more adept at presenting herself as a modern feminist woman, in control and yet interested in others, unworried about building and maintaining personal power.  Ivanka, on the other hand, is far too concerned with garnering superficial approval — that tightly held tummy pulling her alignment off just so, the blank stare intended to signify attentiveness but emanating from a detachment to the moment.

Her “working with Angela Merkel” black dress with its distinctive fit and detailing reminded me of two unfortunate style references: Children of the Corn and Gattaca. Both films are dystopic in form, tell stories about the ways individuals are unduly and immorally controlled by larger forces, and both films suggest greed and wealth underpin the inequities of the society the characters live in.

During the election, three of the four Trump children (as always, minus Tiffany), posted a photograph of themselves. They intended to attract millennial voters with a cool image of the candidate’s family; within minutes that audience responded with a brutal and apt comparison to the aesthetics of the retro horror film Children of the Corn.

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Ivanka’s black dress most unfortunately echoes the costuming in the film. In the 1984 film, the children in a struggling rural town in Nebraska kill the adults, sacrificing their parents’ lives to ensure a good corn crop. The children remake themselves in the image of their new, Old-Testament inspired leader, and rename themselves to reflect that tradition. Their parents’ illegitimate power is replaced by their own immoral power derived from their ruthless extinction of the parental generation.

Another odd and unintended reference is Gattaca, a 1997 sci-fi film about genetic technology, eugenics, and control of men and women through imposition of nearly-impossible standards of beauty and performance. Uma Thurman plays Irene Cassini, and the ways the society controls its citizens are reflected in her extremely tight-fitting black suits relieved only by the narrow band of white collar. (Some of the tightness is, of course, because of Uma Thurman the actress is valued as much for her physical appearance as her talent. So, too, Ivanka’s choices of tight-fitting dresses that “put her in her place” as a thing valued for her appearance rather than her worth as a person.) In the film, Vincent, a genetically-flawed and therefore “invalid” man, successfully poses as a genetically-flawless “valid” person — outperforming all those deemed fit and pure through his own determination, merit, and hard work. Irene, on the other hand, is a genetically-flawless “valid” person with a heart condition that has consigned her to remain on earth, unable to orbit to the centers of power of her society.

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4 thoughts on “Meeting with (an) Angela

  1. I am enjoying this blog so much! Your insights into the subtle semiotics of style and presentation are fascinating, and ring true.

    • Thank you for the kind words. I so enjoy reading other people’s insights on blogs, essays, and so on. It is a privilege to have an opportunity to think through my arguments, and then present them! Thanks!

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