Tiny Trumps Don’t Shrink the Sexual Power Trip
By Rebecca Adelman
Donald Trump is rapt and respectful. Dwarfed by Obama, he listens with his head upturned slightly and hands demurely folded. As he prepares to assume the presidency, he is humbled by the grandeur of his surroundings, and so eager to learn the lessons of good governance imparted by his predecessor.
Oh, Photoshop. Is there any problem you can’t solve? As a technology for inventing and editing pictures, Photoshop serves as a tool for aligning image and imagination, whether by realizing or gratifying a particular visual (and hence always social, historical, and political) fantasy. Sometimes that fantasy takes the Photoshopped form of an hourglass waist or an unlined face or a yawning thigh gap. Other times, it looks like a hoard of pee-wee Donald Trumps. The diminutive stars of a “Hot” subreddit, these “Tiny Trumps” are a tickly diversion from the grim slog of the news. Visually, they disarm the threat of a petulant and vindictive ‘child king,’ rendering him small and impotent. In this way, they express a political wish that things could be otherwise.
Of course, the humor of the “Tiny Trumps” lies in their contrast with actual Trump’s outsized vision of himself. Unlike, for example, Pete Souza’s sly releases of archival photos of Obama to dramatize the differences between him and his successor, “Tiny Trumps” are profoundly unsubtle. At the same time, they function as a visual refusal to acknowledge that Trump became, on January 20th, the most powerful man in the world.
In On Longing, a study of the miniature and the gigantic, Susan Stewart notes that in the mid-nineteenth century, producers of visual culture often manipulated object size as a way of dealing with individual and cultural upheaval. Wielding the still-new technology of the camera, photographers could capture bodies, objects, and landscapes in actual proportion or deploy a range of compositional tricks to produce different effects, and so to exercise visual control over their objects.
More recently, Marita Sturken has argued that “the effect of the miniature is to offer a sense of containment and control over an event.” I’ve also analyzed the politics of dimension, scale, and size in the Global War on Terror, theorizing a range of visual practices of rendering, virtualizing, and flattening as strategies for reckoning with the unthinkable enormity of the terrorist event. Given all of this, we might understand “Tiny Trumps” as itsy-bitsy digital manifestations of this urge to tinker with images in an attempt to master otherwise unthinkable histories.
Predictably, individual “Tiny Trumps” vary widely in creativity and technical finesse. One of the most adept features a pint-sized Trump being interviewed by a comparatively enormous Anderson Cooper. Everything, even the teensy CNN mug, is scaled, while the downward angle of the lines on the background parallels those on Trump’s tie, further emphasizing his smallness.
The discrepancy between their sizes makes Cooper look almost predatory, perhaps enacting a fantasized metaphor of the media holding the president to account (on the other hand, one could imagine such a scene as dramatic illustration for assertions by Trump and his supporters that the newsmedia is out of control).
Along with the “Tiny Trumps” that cast the little man as Vladimir Putin’s progeny, the CNN interview scene intimates a political critique.
But the primary aesthetic of the “Tiny Trump” feed seems to be that of the visual gag. For example, another tableau features a toddler-sized president sprawled out on a sumptuous rug in the White House.
Splayed, he looks like he is having a tantrum (or, owing to the roughness of the editing, like he has been steamrolled). He is surrounded by life-sized adults, including Obama in the foreground, who gestures smugly downward. Trump’s phone, disproportionately large, in accordance perhaps with his Twitter persona, lies next to him.
This particular “Tiny Trump” is one of many on the feed that position him as Obama’s child or situate Obama in paternal or avuncular relation to him. Politically inscrutable, such images simply toy with the fantasy of rendering Trump (who needs to wiretap?) into a figure as ineffectual as a cranky child.
All of these diminishments are a direct rejoinder to Trump’s tendency toward aggrandizement, rhetorical and otherwise. The trademark superlatives. The mania about size. The emphasis on doing things “bigly” or “big league,” depending. So “Tiny Trumps” are logical, in their way, but they are not simply good, clean Internet fun. The problem with “Tiny Trumps” isn’t just that they are unevenly clever; rather, it’s their replication of the deeply corrosive gender politics that often underwrite Trump’s discourse about his own enormity. (Tiny hands, anyone?)
Taking Trump ‘down to size’ is an attack on his bombastic masculinity. Paradoxically, however, those interventions are problematic because they often rely on strategies of effeminization to develop their critique. This logic is clearly visible, for example, in the image of a baby-girl Trump being cradled by a cooing Obama.
This image would feel drastically different if baby Trump was wearing, say, little blue overalls rather than this pink dress and matching pink daisy-ed diaper.
Many Tiny Trumps are downsized to be significantly smaller than the women around him. For example, a smartly-dressed Melania descends a flight of stairs alongside her shrunken husband. Her outstretched hand looks maternal, as if she is trying to prevent him from falling; it appears that he is grabbing for the hem of her coat. Both dressed in black, the similarity in their clothing heightens the contrast between them, and he is scarcely as high as her waist.
This Tiny Trump is funny, in essence, because he is smaller than a woman; the joke, ultimately, is at her expense.
And then there are the expressly sexualized Tiny Trumps. Some of these depict a miniaturized president agog over the breasts of scantily-clad women.
Here, the woman pedaling this Trumplet around is reduced to a prop. Of course, we cannot know what the creator of this picture thinks about Trump’s treatment of women, but the intent is ultimately beside the point. The swipe at Trump’s manhood here, as his limp hand aligns uselessly with his chauffeur’s chest, indirectly affirms that real men verify their masculinity through successful groping.
Speaking of groping:
This politics of image-creation here are clarified by the creator’s caption: “When you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything.” Of course, I sympathize with the urge to neutralize the threat implied in those assertions. But this image literally minimizes the violence that they bespeak.
Taken together, such misbegotten visual jokes rely on and reinforce hegemonic ideals about proper forms of manliness, often at the very moment when they might endeavor to undermine them. I know, I know, they’re meant to be funny. But there are nearly 44,000 Tiny Trumps (and counting) in circulation and hence, a whole lot of creative energy being expended to effect this kind of shrinkage. Size is always political; Trump has capitalized on this, and these images retort in kind. But they also replicate, however much as parody, the logic by which he equates bigness with masculinity and masculinity with domination. In the alternate universe they conjure, size is reapportioned, but power is distributed in largely familiar ways.
— Rebecca Adelman
Originally published at www.readingthepictures.org on March 6, 2017.