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Ivanka Trump, Everywoman

An Ivanka Trump look-alike in a pink dress and stiletto heels pushes a vacuum cleaner around a pink carpet, blonde hair perfectly in place, a smile never leaving her face. Around her, onlookers throw handfuls of crumbs at her and on the floor around her, which she silently vacuums up without complaint, without any falter to her smile.

This is “Ivanka Vacuuming”, a performance art piece currently on display at the Flashpoint Gallery in Washington, DC. According to the artist Jennifer Rubell and the Cultural DC website, it’s a commentary on the many roles Ivanka plays and how we the public contribute to those roles. According to conservatives on Twitter, it is a derogatory piece meant for us to poke fun at Ivanka and laugh as we throw trash at her. The artist herself admits there is no one correct interpretation of her work, and it seems to me possible that both factions are correct. Undoubtedly, there are mean-spirited people who do feel some glee in throwing something at Ivanka, but that is the lowest common denominator, the most shallow possible reading of this work.

My own is more charitable, and in my opinion, more likely to be along the lines of what Rubell had in mind. Now before I explain this, know (if you are new to OT) that I am a liberal, a Democrat, decidedly anti-Trump and no great fan of Ivanka’s (I prefer Tiffany, to be honest. Did you know Trump also has a daughter named Tiffany? She’s a law student at Georgetown.) However, I can honestly say that I do feel for the first first daughter.

I can’t say I empathize totally. I’ll never be a thin, willowy billionaire heiress, and I am far from pitying the woman who probably grew up eating from a literal gold spoon. Still, the many roles she plays is something with which I can commiserate as a professional, a wife, and a mother, though on a much less grand scale. As Culture DC says, Rubell’s piece was “inspired by a figure whose public persona incorporates an almost comically wide range of feminine identities…”

Real Ivanka never stops smiling, except when required to appear reverent. Every day she is the center of the many spinning arms of her persona: the mother, the daughter, the wife, the businesswoman, the diplomat. She’s well aware of the fish bowl in which she lives, and the scorn of which she is the subject. But she remains smiling and outwardly gracious, even if some find the smile plastic and the sincerity of her magnanimity questionable.

She keeps up appearances. She is the subject of scrutiny, her father being the most polarizing figure in American politics in years. She faces a lot of hatred, and much (legitimate, in my opinion) skepticism over her qualifications as “senior advisor” to the president. Even photographs of her with her children are criticized as unrealistic or too posed. And still she smiles with her back straight and head high. Maybe it’s arrogance; maybe it’s more than that. Maybe its how she holds herself up to the maelstrom of expectations in which she stands.

The Ivanka in the museum exhibit is doing something that, chances are excellent, the real Ivanka has never done before: vacuuming. The details of the piece are juxtaposed symbols of different types of womanhood, both the traditional and Ivanka’s in particular. The fake Ivanka represents a homemaker, who is happy and also beautiful and also well dressed in pink business attire and also has perfect hair and also sucks up whatever garbage you throw at her.

Real Ivanka, of course, is far from the typical woman. Her life experience does not echo that of the average wife, mother, or businesswoman. Which is what makes her such an easy subject for the piece, a catalyst for the integration of the onlookers who are as important to the statement of the piece as the Ivanka stand-in is. Are they throwing crumbs at the first daughter they dislike and mock? Are they throwing them at a persona of a woman who has everything and the audacity to be happy about it, who dares to absorb their derision without giving them the satisfaction of a frown? Or are they testing the strength of her womanhood, seeing how long she can continue to suck up whatever is thrown at her with a smile upon her face before she cracks and throws the vacuum cleaner down and starts hurling the detritus back at the crowd?

The fake Ivanka vacuums on; the real Ivanka hasn’t buckled. Like women everywhere who give daily performances of a juggling act, who are damned if they do and damned if they don’t, who are too feminine or not feminine enough, who should not be lazy and stay at home but who should also not leave their children to be raised by strangers, and who must stay thin and well made-up but should not be so selfish as to spend too much time at the gym or the salon, who must smile and be pleasant but not fail to show their humility, who must not struggle but must not appear too proud and competent, lest they make others feel bad.

Maybe it’s just an opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of Ivanka Trump vacuuming in stilettos while throwing things at her. Maybe that was the actual intent of the artist, beneath a false front of something deeper. In any case, the point of a performance art piece is to elicit thoughtful discussion. But if we can get past the perception of a simple school yard bullying, I think there is more than meets the eye here.

 


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Em was one of those argumentative children who was sarcastically encouraged to become a lawyer, so she did. She is a proud life-long West Virginian, and, paradoxically, a liberal. In addition to writing about society, politics and culture, she enjoys cooking, podcasts, reading, and pretending to be a runner. She will correct your grammar. You can find her on Twitter.

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37 thoughts on “Ivanka Trump, Everywoman

  1. I will say there seems to be something “everywoman” about a woman constantly vacuuming up the crumbs others gleefully throw on the floor in front of her, and her being expected to keep smiling through.

    Leaving Ivanka out of it and just using the stereotype “1950s housewife” in heels and pearls – or even a modern woman in slacks and with her hair a bit of a mess – it would still have some resonance with women, i think.

    Or for that matter: anyone who “serves” in ANY capacity knows the feeling (or at least what I personally project as the feeling) of wanting to scream at people who are making your life harder, but being expected to keep it all inside. People who work retail are probably the best example of this but I have also experienced it both in my paid career (professor) and my volunteer life. (oy vey. I’m now remembering an instance where I very nearly rage-quit a position, but didn’t, because the people I was actually serving appreciated me; it was the group leadership that kept coming up with reasons how I could be “better” without offering any actual support for me to become so)

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    • That whole lack of empathy towards people in service is a constant issue. Or maybe it’s less a feeling of empathy and more a pathology of “I get shit on at my job serving others, so I’m going to shit on this service person in order to make myself feel better/get back some sense of power.”

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  2. True, it could have worked with any generic stand-in. But I think using Ivanka makes a stronger statement because she is polarizing. (So many looked at this and called it disgusting, saw it as an attack, mocking her and “taking her down a peg” by showing her doing something so menial as vacuuming which implies she’s too good for such a thing, but I digress). I think the contrast of a symbol of wealth and privilege doing a household chore and others making it harder for her is more powerful.

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  3. are too feminine or not feminine enough

    See also Kyrsten Sinema, who showed up to the Senate floor in apparel a lot of people decided was inappropriate (personally, I couldn’t have cared less, except that it made people lose their shit over something so trivial, which always amuses me).

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    • The Colorado House and Colorado Senate rules have a coat-and-tie provision that applies to everyone on the floor of either chamber, members or not, when in session. “Tie” is interpreted loosely: bolos, scarfs, ribbons, all of those are acceptable. That’s pretty much the extent of the dress code. Blue jeans are occasionally seen. One member was noted for going barefoot. Staff mythology included a senator who was a full member of one of the tribes who one day wore full tribal regalia which the presiding officer, after consulting with the parliamentarian, deemed to include components that satisfied the coat-and-tie rule. When the weather is hot — the Colorado Capitol building is not air-conditioned — the presiding officer is allowed to relax the coat rule, but not the tie part.

      The sergeants-at-arms keep a variety of coats and “ties” in their little room. When I was a staffer, I was killing time on the sidelines one day and raised the question with one of the sergeants as to how he was supposed to respond. “It’s a standing order, so I wouldn’t have to appeal to the presiding officer. Politely inform the member that their attire did not conform to the rules of the Senate, offer them a coat and tie from our stock, and if they declined, tell them that I was required to escort them from the floor and the chamber unless they wanted to raise a point of order with the presiding officer and challenge the rule.”

      For the record, the US Senate does not enforce a dress code. The US House does. As I understand those, the dress Sen. Sinema wore with the boots would have been fine in either chamber. The sleeveless outfit she wore for the swearing in would not have been allowed in the House.

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  4. It’s fun doing some light substitution and seeing what happens.

    Imagine putting Hillary Clinton into such an art installation in… three years since 2016? 1995.

    People throwing crumbs for Hillary Clinton to vacuum up.

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    • Hillary Clinton would probably laugh and wish that she had merely faced those challenges. As would any of the Obama family or the Bush family. You get elected president and the opposing fruitcake wing of the party will throw crap at you and everyone related to you. That’s been the norm since, what, the 90’s?

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      • Well, sure. That might be Hillary Clinton’s response.

        Ooooh! We could have an art installation showing her baking cookies!

        Would that be the only response to such an installation? (Would her response to the installation be seen as the only important one?)

        Have reporters sat down with Ivanka and asked her “what do you think about this art installation?”

        (What would be the response of reporters going up to Hillary Clinton and asking her “what do you think of the art installation showing you baking cookies?”)

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        • Don’t you mean baking cookies after killing Vince Foster in the 90’s. Or making scones with child sex sex slaves with Podesta at Comet Pizza. Or flipping pancakes after laughing about refusing to send help in Bengazi.

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        • They did ask Ivanka for an opinion. She said something to the effect of lifting women up instead of putting them down.
          My opinion of the work would not change at all if it was Hillary Clinton instead because I don’t see it as a work intending to “put her in her place” or to suggest she or or Hillary would be better off vacuuming or baking cookies.
          The public reaction would likely be the same as what I have seen, but from opposite ends of the spectrum.

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            • It’s not a “hypothetical hypocrisy” card. It’s an attempt to reframe.

              “Would I have a problem with this art if one of my oxen were getting gored?” is always an interesting question and having art where someone throws things at a representation of a politician strikes me as obvious an art installation where part of the interpretation involves an ox getting gored.

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              • It doesn’t reframe anything for me because I don’t think it is in any way a political statement. Not in the sense of government or electoral politics. Social politics perhaps.
                I don’t look at this as a piece about a politician so much as a piece featuring a woman who happens among many other things to be a politician. Her current position is just what makes her recognizable and a topical choice for the work.

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  5. I wonder if the artist knows that Ivanka is a Democrat who donated thousands and thousands to Hillary Clinton, Chuck Schumer, Eleanor Holmes Norton, and Corey Booker?

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    • I think this argument contains an unsupported assumption that the artist is driven by her own anti-Republican/Trump sentiment, and thus a presumption that the piece is critical or derisive toward Ivanka.

      I don’t understand why that is the go-to assumption. Is there something about the artist Jennifer Rubell that would predispose that conclusion? Is she a known anti-Trump liberal? Otherwise, I think that makes a big leap in logic.

      Another point I wanted to make (and which I made above): if all a person sees is literally Ivanka vacuuming and somehow finds that demeaning, what is that saying? That a menial household chore millions of women do every day is beneath her? That it’s an insult to portray her as a doing a normal chore?

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  6. I’ll never be a thin, willowy billionaire heiress

    Most likely, neither will Ivanka. Trump probably isn’t anywhere near as rich as he says, and I very much doubt that her share will go to ten digits.

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  7. When viewing conceptual art it’s always important – no, necessary – to read the artist’s statement about the work, so’s to not infer the wrong statements from the work itself.

    “Here is what’s complicated: we enjoy throwing the crumbs for Ivanka to vacuum. That is the icky truth at the center of the work. It’s funny, it’s pleasurable, it makes us feel powerful, and we want to do it more,” notes Rubell. “We like having the power to elicit a specific and certain response. Also, we know she’ll keep vacuuming whether we do it or not, so it’s not really our fault, right?”

    OK. Good. Now, discuss! (/only sorta kidding)

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    • I did, of course, read the artist’s statement. It is right there in the link I included, as is the broader statement about the many roles a woman/Ivanka is expected to play. It doesn’t change my interpretation.

      The fun of throwing crumbs exists whether its Ivanka or a generic stand-in; it’s just that using Ivanka makes some folks feel more justified in their glee and less ashamed of treating another person that way.

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  8. It now occurs to me that “stop and ask yourself: am I gleefully throwing crumbs” could be a new “check yourself” type phrase. Kind of like “punching down vs. punching up” (though to be honest I prefer there to be no punching at all).

    I dunno. What I see as a growing incivility in our culture bothers me. I will admit it bothers me less (a little less) when it’s a public figure who’s known for polarizing statements or a tone-deafness toward how “real” people live. It bothers me a lot when some ordinary schmoe gets hounded at their workplace or whatever – like that Wikipedia editor guy who took all kinds of crap because, apparently, he was chubby and bearded, but not, you know, Chris Pratt-style chubby and bearded.

    or maybe I’m not making any sense; for a variety of reasons I am having a bad-brain day.

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    • like that Wikipedia editor guy who took all kinds of crap because, apparently, he was chubby and bearded, but not, you know, Chris Pratt-style chubby and bearded.

      Agreed. That guy is awesome and the person attacking him was awful.

      It’s worth noting that I only observed one person attacking him, and she was (as far as I can tell) an attention-seeking, narcissistic freakshow.

      Which of course, we gave her tons of attention.

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      • What frightens me a little about what the modern world has become: if you are not, by the popular definition of “beautiful,” a beautiful person, and you wind up in the public eye somehow – even if you do something commendable – you’re going to get dragged for it. And you have no recourse. You just have to sit and take it, because trying to fight back just makes it worse.

        (I have always been insecure about my looks, so maybe I’m being oversensitive).

        Or if someone has a speech impediment. Or if they’re awkward. Or whatever. It’s like we’ve devolved back to our snotty seventh-grader state, or never progressed beyond it.

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        • We live in a narcissistic age. Achievement means little. Image is everything.

          It’s freaking exhausting, tbh.

          Beauty is valuable, the way art is valuable. I’m certainly not the sort to dismiss beauty.

          That is not the problem. The problem is narcissism, image obsession, shallowness, hollowness, ennui. It’s soul crushing — even if you are so lucky to be beautiful.

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  9. For me part of what’s interesting about this work and part of what fascinates me about Ivanka is the relationship of women’s subjugation and their place in the kyriarchy (as symbolized, not saying it’s literally subjugating anytime someone does those things) and literal patriarchal abuse by one’s father. I mean, it’s speculative on my part to assume the president has abused Ivanka (and his other children) but it’s a speculation I haven’t been able to shake, particularly since I consider terrorizing one’s mother in front of one to be a form of abuse in itself and I’m pretty damn sure that happened.

    Thinking of her vacuuming up crumbs in that context makes me think a lot of things.

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