‘Ways of Seeing’ in the Trump Era
There are moments from the Access Hollywood tape you will likely never forget. “Grab ’em by the pussy,” of course. “I moved on her like a bitch,” too. But there are subtler moments, not as overtly crass, but no less telling about the ways in which women are seen, the way they have always been seen, that make it, for the second year running, the defining document of the year.
Watching the video again over a year after it resurfaced is no less dispiriting than the first time. Not simply because its emergence did little to prevent Donald Trump’s election, a man who, lest we forget, has been accused of sexual misconduct by over a dozen women — and unlike others, has yet to suffer any consequences for it — but because it depicts the relationship between men and women so succinctly.
It’s right there in the immediate dramatic irony of the meeting as Trump and Billy Bush emerge from the bus and greet actress Arianne Zucker. The viewer is aware of their shift in tone; they’ve just been sizing her up from a distance, but soon revert to gentlemanly pleasantries, even while stealing quick glances of her up and down. We know what’s on their mind, and she does not, and the tension there inspires discomfort. But of course she also must know, because as a woman, and particularly one whose appearance is central to her social presence, to be appraised by men is the condition under which she lives.
Soon thereafter, the camera shifts around to the front, and we watch Trump and Bush walking behind Zucker. We watch them watching her, just as she is aware she’s being watched. Just as all women are aware they’re being watched.
Much like everything else in the time-warping Trump era, the video seems an artifact of the distant past. While what it illustrates could be from any year — and it is from 2005 — it felt especially meaningful this past year in particular, one in which, at long last, the balance of perspective shifted. Somewhat.
Two things happened in January of 2017. The day after Trump’s inauguration, millions of people, in hundreds of cities around the world, took to the streets to protest under the auspices of the Women’s March. While the issues were varied, a significant, if not the most pressing concern, was Trump’s statements about and anticipated policies regarding women. The enduring symbol of the marches, for better or worse, became the pink, knitted “pussy hats”, themselves a reference to Trump’s comments in the Access Hollywood video. As Kritsa Suh, one of the originators of the design explained at the time, the idea was about staying warm in the D.C. winter, but more importantly about creating something that would be visible. It was about being seen.
A few weeks earlier, John Berger, the renowned British writer and art critic passed away at the age of 90. While any year since its publication in 1972 would have been a fine one to re-read Berger’s most famous work, Ways of Seeing, 2017, a year bookended by the Women’s March and the emergence of the #metoo movement seems particularly appropriate. The book, long a principle text of both art criticism and feminist theory, seems tailor-made as a guide to the year’s predominant theme, one where women first demanded to be seen, then confronted the ways in which they have long been seen.
“A man’s presence is dependent upon the promise of power which he embodies,” Berger wrote. “If the promise is large and credible his presence is striking.” His presence “suggests what he is capable of doing to you or for you.” If anything, this has been the linchpin upon which Trump’s entire persona, both as the cliched powerful businessman, and now as the most powerful man in the world, has turned. Others like him too, from Harvey Weinstein to Matt Lauer, and on down the list of powerful men.
A woman’s presence, on the other hand, is different, Berger suggested. Woman are socialized into the keeping of men, and operate constantly under the male gaze, as film critic Laura Mulvey called it in 1975, to such an extent that they internalize a masculine observer within themselves.
In short, “men act and women appear,” he wrote. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at…. Thus she turns herself into an object — and most particularly an object of vision: a sight.”
A return to the Access Hollywood tape illustrates all of this almost note for note. Zucker’s presence, her outward portrayal of herself as she imagines the world, and men in particular, want to see her, renders Trump and Bush dumbstruck. There is an element of exaggeration here, but this is what men tell themselves women do to them. They appear.
Trump’s segment on the set of her program Days of Our Lives that day is for a bit role. They discuss the terms briefly, as the camera traces their entrance, traces Bush and Trump surveying her. Trump is to play, of course, a powerful businessman.
“You’re going to beg him for attention… for an apprenticeship?” Bush asks her of the story’s plot.
“To get married,” she clarifies.
The man is in possession of something of value, and the woman then must use her appearance to convince him to treat her to it.
There’s another irony at work here that echoes the stories of women in the workplace having to work twice as hard as mediocre or incompetent men to be taken seriously. Unlike Zucker, who explains she has her lines already memorized, Trump is entirely unprepared for his responsibilities that day. He hasn’t read the script, but she assures him she’ll have him taken care of.
“To be born a woman has been to be born, within an allotted and confined space, into the keeping of men,” Berger tells us.
Despite this, despite Zucker having assumed the role of both the caretaker of the interview, and the star of the show she regularly appears on, she has had to do extra work to be taken seriously. And her efforts, at least based on Trump and Bush’s initial reading of her, render that entirely secondary. She is, in their estimation, no different than a beautiful painting.
“Uh, yeah, those legs, all I can see is the legs,” Bush groans.
There is a precedent for this in the history of European oil painting, Berger writes, in the tradition of the nude. In the story of Adam and Eve, it is Eve, after all, who is punished for committing the same crime as Adam. Over time, as painting became more secular, something happens to the way Eve is depicted. She is no longer naked in and of herself, representing herself, she is naked as the spectator sees her. She is nude, and her nudity is no longer a mere fact, it is an observable attribute. Up through the Renaissance this performative aspect of nudity continues to take shape. As in Rembrandt’s Susanna and the Elders, the woman looks at us looking at her nude. The male perspective being the default of all art, from oil painting through modern advertising.
The “essential way of seeing women, the essential use to which their images are put, has not changed,” he writes. “Women are depicted in a quite different way from men — not because the feminine is different from the masculine — but because the ’ideal” spectator is always assumed to be male and the image of the woman is designed to flatter him.”
This often comes at the expense of our estimation of the woman in the tradition of the nude, as women began to appear holding a mirror, or gazing at their own reflection in a river. This is hypocritical, Berger writes, because it was men after all who contrived the paintings in the first place.
“You put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting Vanity, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.”
Trump exhibits this point perfectly in the video. The woman he had “moved on like a bitch” had attempted to tailor her presence to what she imagined men like him would appreciate.
“Then all of a sudden I see her, she’s now got the big phony tits and everything,” he says, almost disgusted. “She’s totally changed her look.”
A second common subject of Renaissance painting adds another element to this in the form of competition, as seen in The Judgment of Paris, with an apple being awarded to the fairest woman. The modern equivalent is the beauty pageant. And of course, of course, because Trump seems to have used Berger’s text as a script for his entire life, in the video he mentions his ownership of the Miss Universe pageant to a group of onlookers. Here is a man whose presence is derived from what he can do for others, and, in large part, he takes that power from what he can do for women who are attempting to regulate their own presence to his preference. He produces the literal embodiment of the male gaze and sells it back to us.
Trump is an exaggerated version of what Berger delineates, but he is by no means an exception. If nothing else, the number of men, high-profile and otherwise, being outed as abusers in the fallout of the post-Weinstein era demonstrates just how pervasive it has been. In workplaces from Hollywood to newspapers to the restaurant industry, a constant theme of these stories has been men’s inability, or refusal, to see the women they work with as anything other than objects or prizes no matter how competent they might otherwise be at their work. The result has been an untold number of women for generations discouraged or outright prevented from gaining an equal footing.
A woman, Berger writes, “has to survey everything she is and everything she does because how she appears to others, and ultimately how she appears to men, is of crucial importance for what is normally thought of as the success of her life. Her own sense of being in herself is supplanted by a sense of being appreciated as herself by another.”
That attitude has certainly shifted somewhat in recent decades, as women have come to be valued, in theory if not always in practice, for their own talents irrespective of their relationship to men, but it hasn’t, at least as the stories of the #metoo movement have shown us, resulted in the type of seismic shift necessary to completely change the culture. This is the fault of men, the traditional holders and distributors of power, to be clear. But it may be starting to change.
There was one huge shift in the ways of seeing that Berger talks about: the invention of the camera. Prior to that, the idea of perspective in European art centered everything on the eye of the beholder. One would gaze upon a painting, and the details of the world would coalesce inward into the viewer’s eye. “Every drawing or painting that used perspective proposed to the spectator that he was the unique centre of the world.” The viewer, and the painter for that matter, were by default assumed to be men.
The camera changed this.
“The invention of the camera changed the way men saw. The visible came to mean something different to them,” he writes. Gradually, the proliferation of cameras everywhere changed not only the types of things that we were shown throughout the world, but the identity of the beholder witnessing them.
Soon, man realized he wasn’t the center of everything. He was no longer the unique protagonist of reality, with all he gazed upon arranged specifically just so for him. It was revolutionary. Women have always been used to being looked at, but this year, at long last, they started to look back.