PRINT Summer 1990



ACCORDING TO THE POPULAR WISDOM, all of you out there (yes, you) are one of two things: insatiably fascinated by the Donald, Ivana, and Marla headlines, hijinks, and trashy photographs, especially of Marla, the Miracle Ceramic Tile Adhesive Girl, or sick to death of the entire thing. Certainly the New York news media have gambled that any Trump tidbit they could scrape up was front-page news, from handwriting analysis of Marla’s scrawl and boldface announcements of “Ivana in Tears” to such superscoops as the revelation of Marla’s residence—this is incredible—in New Jersey. Local television commentators galloped along with the pack, breathlessly reporting “stories” at 6 P M. (Marla was in a house on Long Island) that the tabloids had headlined twelve hours earlier. Not to be outdone, though, the TV people garnered their own juicy scoops: “We’ll be back with the very latest on Ivana Trump’s first marriage,” chortled a WCBS anchor, no doubt hoping to outdo WNBC, which two days earlier had promised to “go behind the scenes of a Marla Maples commercial.” Whether you were sick of them or not, the Trump trio assaulted you at every turn.

Because the nauseation factor of this story was so high, however, various commentators devoted many minutes and sentences to deploring the generally low tenor of the Trumps-‘n’-Maples story. “The tabloids are having a field day with Donald and Ivana Trump,” smirked one local anchor just before his station’s reporters had a field day with them themselves. The New York Times did periodic metacritical pieces on the coverage, permitting its reporter to indict the Times along with everyone else participating in this journalistic equivalent of naked pig wrestling. In a further embellishment, New York Magazine contributing editor John Taylor did a critique of the Trump scandal coverage. Taylor may have thought he was writing a piece of sly criticism, but his boyish irony came off instead as a valentine to Trump. His article deserves some scrutiny, though, because of his role, as a former contributor to Manhattan, inc. (when it was an interesting publication edited by Jane Amsterdam), in simultaneously constructing and deconstructing the business class of the 1980s. Taylor’s basic stance toward any journalist who has criticized the coverage of the story is sneering contempt, which coincidentally is Trump’s posture toward his competitors and critics too. Taylor characterizes those journalists as a “certain type of ‘media cop’” who “began to make the predictable complaint that the story should not have so dominated the news in a week in which Nelson Mandela was freed, the two Germonies surged toward reunification, the Soviets agreed to radical troop reductions in Europe, Bush traveled to Colombia to form an ‘anti–drug cartel,’ and Drexel Burnham filed for bankruptcy.” Newsweek columnist George Will was a big offender on this front, according to Taylor, along with editors and writers who trotted out “banal sociological explanations about the Trumps’ stature as America’s surrogate royalty and . . . tiresome ponderings about another sign that the ‘decade of glitz’ was over.” (Funny, but Taylor’s book, Circus of Ambition: The Culture of Wealth and Power in the Eighties, makes similar points, quoting from such sources as Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, from 1953. Taylor must mean some other sociological explanations—not his.) “I promise not to waste your time with any of that,” Taylor gushed, and then went on to extol the Trump split for its “entertainment value.”

After careful thought, especially about what “entertainment” means to someone who finds Donald, Ivana, and Marla (hereafter known as DIM) entertaining, this writer has to reject Taylor’s assessment. Yet his slyly bubble headed exposé of Donald’s true feelings about the DTM affair deserves dose attention. It is a new contribution to the vast literature of a virulently misogynistic trend, which we might call the “bitchification” of women.

What fuels this process is the image of any woman unfortunate enough to be linked with (in any sense of that term) a newsworthy man. Hence, however much money Jim Bakker embezzled from his ministry, the most odious signifier of his story was Tammy’s mascara. Whatever political corruption and repression Ferdinand Marcos visited on the Philippines, the real problem there was that Imelda had too many shoes. Similarly, it wasn’t so bad that Ronald Reagan was a conservative dimwit who helped enlarge the gap between rich and poor until the U.S.’s income distribution became comparable to India’s, but that Nancy was a grasping society matron who went to an astrologer. And the arsonist’s fire at New York’s Happy Land Social Club, in which 87 people died, wasn’t the predictable outcome of rampant male violence against women; the real culprit was Litho Feliciano, the worthless female who unjustly rejected the poor guy who set the fire. In American conservatives’ decade-long festival of demonization—of the Sandinistas, the Japanese, Manuel Noriega, Fidel Castro, pornography, rock music, etc.—women have been high on the list. They get involved with prominent, wealthy men because they are money-hungry, publicity-seeking trollops. And they go to bed with any man because they are selfish, murderous nymphomaniacs who will have an abortion as easily as a manicure. The Marla Mapleses and Donna Rios are grist for the misogynist’s mill. No matter what they do with any chosen man, the image of their large breasts and ready smiles alone is a ringing self-indictment.

True to form, Taylor begins his analysis where most men covering this story end theirs: Marla’s sexual availability and Donald’s sexual prowess. “The Post’s two headlines, DON JUAN and BEST SEX I'VE EVER HAD, together with all the hot pouty photographs of the ‘luscious Georgia peach’ with whom Trump was allegedly involved, have established him as a man of almost superhuman gifts in that department.” Now Taylor certainly means to be tongue-in-cheek here, as he demonstrates by quoting Trump’s own words to show that the man is really getting off not on sex but on all this publicity. And Taylor goes on to deflate all but the metaphoric aspect of the situation: “He had more fun screwing Merv Griffin on the Resorts deal,” says one Trump acquaintance, “than he ever did having sex with a woman.” Although the implications of this sentence ore much more interesting than all the rest of the predictable scandal, however, Taylor doesn’t explore it. The sublimated sexual violence of American business, from the “rape” and “murder” of vulnerable companies to the forced merger of businesses that are inherently incompatible, stays well hidden from public view. Instead, the bodies of women are trotted out and displayed, in the form of trashy snapshots and video auditions for soap operas, displacing justified rage at the injustices of our economy onto an unjustified disgust at women.

But the meaning for a man of having women and sex and business at his own whim and by his own rules is what Taylor’s piece is all about. He is alternately casual, contemptuous, and breathless about women in general. Of Trump’s connubial walkout Taylor observes, “On the most obvious level, it was simply a case of sexual restlessness. After all, trading in an aging wife for a younger model is an almost obligatory rite of passage for the modern tycoon.” Although intended as a criticism of these randy execs, Taylor’s matter-of-fact statement trivializes the odiousness of this ritual. Later he reveals his justification for his stand by pointing out that Marla symbolizes Trump’s rejection “of the whole order of spectral gargoyles who inhabit New York’s high society.” Trump, he says, “loathes these women, whom his wife was coming increasingly to resemble.”

Nestled in the midst of his misogyny is Taylor’s ultimate defense of Trump: “He never tries to be what he is not, which is the main reason so much of the criticism of him is irrelevant. And for all his overarching egotism and toughness, he has always seemed to me fundamentally boyish.” (My italics.) Like those who have criticized Trump before him, Taylor focuses his defense on Trump-the-individual, rather than Trump-a-leading-representative-of-the-free-enterprise-system. He positions Trump as boy, an all-American lad of the towering ambition that can only be realized in the U.S. of A. Boys don’t do terrible things to other people and to cities; if they do, it is because they’re so naive. Boys will be boys, in this world view, and are exempt from most criticism because they do what they do out of their charmingly inquisitive natures. And boys defend other boys because otherwise the options for boys may become unattractively narrowed.

Indeed, the entire DTM affair can be seen as an attempt by the boys who own and run the media, in concert with the boys who run the rest of American business, to retrench in the face of myriad threats to their once-unquestioned claims to unlimited power, money, and sex. It is precisely the serious world events scornfully listed by Taylor that are the reason why the West’s white boys must construct ways to maintain their own privilege. Before world minorities follow in Nelson Mandela’s footsteps and demand equality, and before women free themselves from economic and social dependence on men, everything needs to be brought back under control. The Marla Mapleses and Donna Rices and Jessica Hahns and Imelda Marcoses serve admirably as the “bitch,” that Janus-faced opposition to “mother.”

Taylor isn’t the only offender on this front. Other male journalists who have critiqued DTM have come up with similarly trivializing analyses. Lewis Grossberger, a.k.a. Media Person for the now-defunct 7 Days, decided that the country had “fluffed out” into a soft, flakey atmosphere of sheer inanity. Russell Baker of the New York Times said the U.S. was “wallowing in piffle” and diagnosed the country as being “nearly brain dead.” Would the large-scale humiliation of men by the mass media be defined as “fluff?” Hey, this isn’t either silly or terminal, guys. It’s ideology.

Carol Squiers is a writer and curator, and senior editor at American Photo. Her column appears regularly in Artforum.