The Logic of Trump’s Sexist Attacks

When women challenge Trump politically, he insults them physically.

On Thursday, Donald Trump tweeted that MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski had been “bleeding badly from a face-lift” when she visited Mar-a-Lago last December. On Tuesday, in the Oval Office, he interrupted a phone call with the Irish prime minister to call over a female Irish journalist, Caitriona Perry, while referring to her “nice smile” and “this beautiful Irish press.”

The incidents are two sides of the same coin. Two decades ago, a pair of social psychologists, Susan Fiske and Peter Glick, distinguished between what they called “hostile” and “benevolent” sexism. Hostile sexism manifests itself in derogatory or threatening comments about a woman’s appearance, capacities, or behavior. Benevolent sexism, by contrast, manifests itself in praise or chivalry that nonetheless reaffirms a woman’s subordinate status. Telling your female coworker that she’s ugly is an expression of hostile sexism. Telling your female coworker that she’s pretty is an expression of benevolent sexism. Sexually assaulting a female colleague is an expression of hostile sexism. Suggesting that a female colleague needs help carrying her bags is an expression of benevolent sexism. Hostile sexism may be more antagonistic and aggressive but benevolent sexism also conveys the message that women should be valued for their appearance, and that they are not equal to men.

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