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Ivanka Trump’s new book is a vacuous exercise in branding

Globe and Mail columnist Tabatha Southey.

Move over, Trump Natural Spring Water. When it comes to flavourless, odourless, tasteless and utterly transparent products you really don’t want to get on your e-reader, the arrival this past week of Ivanka Trump’s Women Who Work means you have been replaced.

As with the bottled water, Women Who Work is, essentially, a repackaging and branding exercise. There’s water, water everywhere and there are inspirational quotes and anecdotes everywhere, and now the Trump name has been applied to both of these resources.

Watch your back, Donald: It’s one thing to slap your name on condominiums, casinos and boxed frozen steaks in an attempt to add a veneer of luxury to them. It takes a whole other level of Trumpian gumption to do the same with the Dalai Lama and Jane Goodall.

Women Who Work is nothing if not a collection of quotes and, on reflection, it really is a toss-up between the two. It is a book in which quotes generally introduce other, lengthier quotes – excerpts of already successful works of advice being the stuff of which the book’s chapters, sections and subsections (all of which are graced with names such as “Elevate Your Meetings” and “Hiring to Fortify Your World Class Team”) are largely made.

This cavalcade of “curated,” as Ms. Trump calls them, co-options and recountings are mostly concluded by yet another quote in order to create a sort of quote sandwich, if sandwiches were just loaves of sliced white bread turned the long way.

Strange bedfellows emerge from this citation soirée. “Freeing yourself was one thing; claiming ownership of that freed self was another,” Toni Morrison wrote in Beloved on the subject of grappling with the enduring trauma wrought by slavery.

Ivanka, bless her, has the vision to repurpose this quote to open a chapter about the importance of being “the master of” your time rather than a “slave” to it. One accomplishes this feat, we learn, by not doing “reactive” things such as “returning calls, attending meetings, answering e-mails, and managing your team.” So: working, as Ivanka Trump understands the concept.

Maya Angelou gets misquoted, and “Ask For Flexibility” is introduced by a quote from none other than Nelson Mandela because, really, isn’t that exactly what his particular project was about? If spending 18 of one’s 27 years in prison offshore on Robben Island in an effort to dismantle a system of racial discrimination in one’s entire country isn’t a lot like asking “your team” (Ms. Trump seems convinced all working women have one of these) whether you can telecommute, I don’t know what is.

Institutional change – or even acknowledgment of systemic disadvantage, or systemic anything, really – were clearly not on Ms. Trump’s mind when she pasted some Mandela into her go-girl, feel-good, jargon-choked, apolitical empowerment scrapbook. Ms. Trump, after all, seems convinced that bad things only happen to people who refuse to “pro-actively devote [their] time to what really matters to [them]” because they “can’t stop negatively overreacting to [their] daily obligations and demands” or properly identify their “passion,” which is, after all, “our reason for being.” The fools!

One senses she would have suggested Mr. Mandela perhaps try “a conversation” with his team about flex-apartheid but, notably, she advises against playing “hardball.”

Mr. Mandela’s quote is the opening act for a hefty chunk of Sheryl Sandberg’s 2013 Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead. Ms. Trump’s begins her book by insisting that she’s stepping up to write it because “the time to change the narrative around women and work is long overdue.”

Then, throughout the rest of the book, she copies and pastes many of the writers who met that deadline some time ago – Joanna Barsh and Susie Cranston of How Remarkable Women Lead; and political scientist Anne-Marie Slaughter, whose piece in The Atlantic, Why Women Still Can’t Have It All, led to her book Unfinished Business, for example.

It appears the thing Ms. Trump most wanted to change about the “working-woman” narrative was the fact that she wasn’t starring in it.

There’s an obvious parallel to be found in Ms. Trump’s clothing line. Until her brand stepped in to save us, she informs the reader, the image of working women was a “one-dimensional, suit-clad, caricature, striding down Fifth Avenue, briefcase in hand, a stern expression on her face.”

This was a serious issue because, by Ms. Trump’s account, the single biggest obstacle facing working women in America today isn’t childcare (daycare is scantly mentioned in Women In Work – once in a quote about instructing your minders to send you photos and updates throughout the day) or the briefly, belatedly, mentioned wage gap, presented largely as something that happens to single mothers. Women, she seems to be saying, were oppressed by the absence of the opportunity to purchase “apparel and accessories” with which to “express ourselves.”

It is to this end that Ms. Trump, back in 2007, bravely, selflessly set about trying to advance our cause with her line of womenswear. Truly, she is the Margaret Sanger of 5-per-cent spandex, 95-per-cent polyester.

Beyond writers who, she alleges, failed to portray the reality of working women’s lives, but whom she earnestly quotes in her book professing to be about working women’s lives, a lot of women are erased in Ms. Trump’s retelling of fashion history as well. There was never a Diane von Furstenberg, let alone an Anne Klein or a Claire McCardell. Donna Karan’s Seven Easy Pieces collection of 1985 was but a bodysuit-based dream, apparently. There is only Ms. Trump, fashion quoter, and her endlessly derivative line, hawked as liberating.

There’s nothing clever in this, no marketing genius. Women have been asked to purchase fetishes of their own empowerment since we had an income.

“Because I’m worth it,” was the L’Oréal line when I was growing up. Before that came Virginia Slims’ “You’ve come a long way, baby.”

Women Who Work, it can most charitably be said, is in that tradition. It is promotional, a bland catalogue for the Ivanka line. It’s not even a text for readers in the market for some knock-off feminism.

Ultimately, its scope is so mind-crushingly small that it is only a book about how to be Ivanka Trump and – spoiler alert – it’s really easy.

Step 1. Think about what you want.

Step 2. Get it!

It’s not that, in all the quotes and cribbing, there’s no Ivanka Trump in this book. Oh, she’s there. “Our attitudes influence our mindset,” Ms. Trump tells us. This makes me cry, in both my mindset and my attitude.

Barring travel at relativistic speeds, we move forward through time constantly and at a constant rate, one second per second, or, as Ivanka Trump expresses it, “If you choose to have a child or children early in your career, and later you decide to return to a traditional corporate setting, be prepared for the fact that you will be older than your peers at the same level …”

Although only by a maximum of eight weeks if you work for Ms. Trump, that being the amount of maternity leave her employees were eventually able to finagle from this self-professed champion of women. Note as well that everything, having a baby, staying home, going to work, in Ms. Trump’s world, is a choice.

You would need a Kelvin scale for self-awareness to describe just how little of that precious quality Ms. Trump demonstrates in her appropriated opus. “During extremely high-capacity times, like during the campaign, I went into survival mode …” she writes. But no, she didn’t eat anyone. It turns out that what “survival mode” means to Ms. Trump is “I worked and I was with my family; I didn’t do much else.”

“Honestly, I wasn’t treating myself to a massage or making much time for self-care.”

It’s the “honestly” that catapults that sentence into the realm of superhuman egocentrism.

What working mother, what person on Earth, did she think would be incredulous of this statement? (Besides herself.)

Also, and this goes for everyone, you say “self-care” and I will want to hurt you. Your call.

The void left behind by this total absence of self-awareness is filled with an astronomical level of artifice.

“I realized that it might be helpful in changing the narrative – even in a small way – to, for example, debunk the superwoman myth by posting a photo that my husband candidly snapped of me digging in the garden with the kids in our backyard, my hair in a messy ponytail, dirt on my cheek. I’ve been careful not to pretend it’s easy because it is not.”

Oh, Ivanka, that is not debunking the “superwoman myth.” Showing the world that you – when you’re not running your own company or attending glamorous evening events – can be found digging in your garden with your children is the “superwoman myth.”

You, with the dirt on your cheek and the down-home ponytail, are a Parthenon frieze celebrating that mythic figure who has and does it all, an Instagram obelisk at the door to her temple. And you know it.

Why does Ivanka Trump’s book – or 256-page pictureless inspirational calendar, as I came to think of it – matter?

Largely because the spin has consistently been that she’s in the White House, moderating her father, looking out for women, and so if she does have an agenda beyond her own advancement, beyond the promotion of the Trump brand, then this book would have been the logical place to explore that vision. But a more vacuous document would be hard to find.

“What exactly is she doing there?” many Americans ask.

“She’s doing her bit quietly,” they’re told, it’s leaked.

“She teared up this one time when her father didn’t want to apologize, after the world listened to him describing on tape how his fame allowed him to get away with just grabbing women ‘by the pussy,’” we hear, but then she helped him get elected and now she’s helping out, in a womanly way, we are to understand. She’s there to smooth things over, make things pretty, ask for nothing.

Ivanka Trump is doing the altar flowers at the Church of the Patriarchy, but there’s some pink tulips in the arrangement, so rest easy.

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