Pygmalion President: Trump and the Ancient Myth of the Perfect Woman

February 6, 2018 | 8 min read

Two millennia ago in the Metamorphoses Ovid recounted the myth of Pygmalion, a hater of women. Disgusted with the Propoetides, who become the first women to prostitute themselves, he sculpts a flawless ivory maiden:

Offended by the faults nature gave in full
to the female mind, he lived as a wifeless bachelor….
Meanwhile with wondrous art he sculpted snow-white
ivory and gave it beauty no born woman can
possess, and he fell in love with his own work.
She looked like a true virgin, who you’d believe was alive….
So utterly does art hide art.

coverPygmalion extends the moral faults he sees in the Propoetides to women at large—the female mind is simply defective. His umbrage extends to the aesthetic imperfections of the female body. The Latin word vitium, “fault,” is either an ethical shortcoming or a physical defect that spoils a lovely surface. Pygmalion’s artistic victory lies in his ability both to mimic and surpass nature in the manufacture of a chaste, beautiful woman.

The statue of course has no interior world, no notion of autonomous identity. She is not given a name (though in later versions she’s called Galatea, “milky-white”). She has no mind, so of course she cannot speak it. The perfect woman has no body, no soul, no voice. She is a thing.

Pygmalion eagerly kisses and fondles her ivory flesh, and our eye travels over her body as he adorns her:

                           He ornaments her limbs with clothing,
puts gems on her fingers, wraps long necklaces around her neck.
Smooth pearls hang from her ear, chaplets from her breast,
Everything flatters her, nor does she seem less beautiful in the nude.           

The statue is an assemblage of beautiful body parts subjected to Pygmalion’s visual and artistic control. This fragmentation of woman into limbs, fingers, neck, ears, and breasts dehumanizes the female body, rendering it the superlative object of the male gaze.

There is something horrifyingly narcissistic about Pygmalion, who loves only what he himself has created. Like Narcissus, whose tale appears earlier in Ovid’s epic, Pygmalion is mesmerized by his own reflection. Yet since Pygmalion cannot sexually penetrate his statue, he beseeches Venus to bring her to life. The story abruptly ends the moment she wakes up.

The story must end where it does, or it would cease to be a tale of artistic triumph. The living wife would have every seeming imperfection that compelled Pygmalion to sculpt her in the first place. She’d no longer be a virgin. Pregnancy would transform her once taut belly. Nursing would alter her breasts. She would age, her surface lined with defects. The ivory would become flesh, a real body. She would eat and excrete. Most notably, she would have a mind. She would speak it, perhaps even nag. There is no doubt she disappoints Pygmalion, no doubt he considers picking up the chisel once more.

This story teaches damaging lessons to and about women that remain in full force: our worth is measured by the aesthetic pleasure we give men and only perfection passes muster. The ideal woman is a man’s creation. The 2016 presidential election offers the best gauge of how much we still endorse such misogyny. After all, Pygmalion won.

Donald Trump venerates beauty as his highest ideal:

My style is based on trying to make whatever I do breathtakingly beautiful. People react emotionally to my style; they appreciate, get pleasure from, and want more of it. My style excites me and inspires me to do bigger, better, and more magnificent projects. It’s no accident that I’m so involved with beauty; it’s my signature, my brand. (Trump 101)

Politics has not dimmed this enthusiasm. During his presidential campaign he attempted to alleviate criticism of his proposed southern border wall by promising it would be a “beautiful wall” with a “big, beautiful door.”

And Trump surrounds himself with beautiful women, at least those that fit a certain homogeneous aesthetic type—white, tall, thin. Trump admires such women in the same way he admires buildings—as parodied brilliantly on Saturday Night Live by Alec Baldwin’s Trump, who calms his nerves by repeating the mantra “big beautiful boobs and buildings.” Trump has explicitly made this connection: “Beauty and elegance, whether in a woman, a building, or a work of art, is not just superficial or something pretty to see. Beauty and elegance are products of personal style that come from deep within” (Trump 101).

It is no accident that the two main prongs of Trump’s “empire” prior to his foray into reality television and politics were real estate and beauty pageants: “What I do is successful because of the aesthetics,” he told The New York Times in 1999, “People love my buildings and my pageants.” He seems to believe the beauty of the women around him signifies not their own but his triumph—they too are part of the Trump brand. Such beauty, like that of Pygmalion’s statue, is merely a reflection of a narcissistic artist.

Like the statue, Trump’s ideal beauty queen has been excavated of interior value—her mind is best regarded as an absence. While promoting Miss USA on The Howard Stern Show in 2005, he quipped, “If you’re looking for a rocket scientist, don’t tune in tonight. But if you’re looking for a really beautiful woman, you should watch.” Earlier in 1998 he explained what set apart his Miss Universe pageant from the rest: “This is a real beauty contest. Others, such as Miss America, are not really beauty contests because they judge a great deal on talent. Miss Universe is all about beauty.” The merits of a woman’s intellect simply do not factor into the measure of her beauty. When he does draw attention to women’s minds, it is usually to dismiss them as intrinsically faulty. Last year in a series of polemical tweets, he labeled Morning Joe co-host Mika Brzezinski “neurotic,” “not very bright,” “crazy,” “very dumb,” “low IQ,” and suggested that she was suffering from a “mental breakdown.”

Trump, like Pygmalion, wants women to behave—to dress and act—like ladies, an idea that echoes the fleshless statue’s ability somehow to look like a “true virgin.” This desire has fueled his reality television endeavors. In 2009 he executive-produced a show called The Girls of Hedsor Hall, in which young women deemed “party girls” attended a British finishing school. A similar 2007 effort entitled Lady or a Tramp never aired, but Variety quotes Trump’s description of its concept:

We are all sick and tired of the glamorization of these out-of-control young women, so I have taken it upon myself to do something about it. I am creating a real-life version of ‘My Fair Lady’ with my company Trump Productions. This show is all about getting a second chance and transforming for the better.

covercoverMy Fair Lady was based on George Bernard Shaw’s successful play Pygmalion, an updating of Ovid’s myth, with Henry Higgins playing the sculptor to Eliza Doolittle’s ivory statue. Trump’s proposed show in fact has closer affinities with the original myth insofar as he, like Pygmalion, is fixated on the sharp dichotomy between virgin (“lady”) and whore (“tramp”).

Trump’s attempts to manufacture idealized female beauty extend to the women in his family. As he bragged to Howard Stern in 2003, “You know who’s one of the great beauties of the world, according to everybody? And I helped create her. Ivanka. My daughter, Ivanka. She’s 6-feet tall, she’s got the best body.” In 1994 Trump gave an interview to ABC News with then-wife Marla Maples in which he clearly casts himself as the Pygmalion-like creator of his wives: “I’m a great star-maker, which I’ve done with Ivana and Marla. I liked that. But once they are a star, the fun is over for me. It’s the creation process, like creating a building. It’s sad.” There can be no happy ending for Pygmalion. The work of art, having become “real,” quickly disappoints.

Trump’s gaze, like that of Pygmalion, views women’s bodies as an assemblage of discrete, dehumanized parts. As he told Esquire in 1991, “It doesn’t really matter what [the media] write[s] as long as you’ve got a young and beautiful piece of ass.” The most chilling example of this comes in his infamous Access Hollywood recording, where he disassembles women into beautiful legs and grabbable pussies. He likewise diminishes women who do not fit his aesthetic standard by accusing them of having ugly or substandard parts. “A woman who is very flat-chested,” he told Howard Stern in 2005, “is very hard to be a 10.”

To Trump, the natural functions of the female body are a source of marked anxiety. His perfect woman, like Pygmalion’s statue, does not undergo biological processes. He claimed to Howard Stern in 2004, for instance, that he had never known his wife Melania to defecate or pass gas. In 2011 he called a female attorney “disgusting” for having to pause a deposition to pump milk for her infant daughter, and perhaps most notoriously he suggested in 2015 that debate moderator Megyn Kelly had “blood coming out of her wherever.” The most beautiful bodies aren’t even bodies.

Trump frequently mocks women as having had recourse to plastic surgery, itself an art form employed to overcome nature’s seeming imperfections. He does this especially to women who have somehow challenged him, retaliating against them by ridiculing their visual bodies. So Mika Brzezinski was “bleeding badly from a facelift,” while Cher has had “massive plastic surgeries that didn’t work.” In his Access Hollywood recording he strikes back against a woman he once unsuccessfully tried to “fuck” by reducing her to “big, phony tits.” Trump attacks these women as though they themselves are unsuccessful artisans—they have not lived up to Pygmalion’s victory whereby “art hides art.” As manufacturers of their physical selves, he deems women inferior.

Just as Pygmalion’s statue never speaks, Trump’s ideal woman pleases only when her voice is held firmly in check: “Often, I will tell friends whose wives are constantly nagging them about this or that that they’re better off leaving…. For a man to be successful he needs support at home…not someone who is always griping and bitching” (The Art of the Comeback). Trump’s current wife, Melania, has made it the acme of her wifely virtues to restrain her voice. As she told Harper’s Bazaar, “I’m not that kind of wife who would say, ‘Learn this’ or ‘Learn that.’ I’m not a nagging wife.” The chief sin of a nagging wife, it seems, would be to attempt a Pygmalion-like makeover of her husband.

As president, Trump remains every bit the Pygmalion he’s always been. From praising the “nice smile” of a female member of the “beautiful Irish press” to declaring the first lady of France “in good shape” and “beautiful” (a compliment delivered chiefly to her husband), he seems incapable of treating the world’s women as more than objects to be admired or censured on aesthetic grounds. He even recently reassured a group of young, mostly female trick-or-treaters that he could justifiably give them Halloween candy because they have “no weight problems.”

Trump’s idealizing of standardized, “perfect” female beauty has enabled him to eulogize himself as a lover of women when in reality he dehumanizes them. The reduction of woman to sculptable body, to a thing created by and for men, all too readily opens the door to abuse and exploitation. Numerous women have accused Trump of sexual harassment and assault, allegations he has simply dismissed as the lies of mendacious women.

Pygmalion lurks in far too many of today’s powerful men. Harvey Weinstein has become famous both for the creation of female stars and for his sexual assault of them. Woody Allen, who himself has faced serious allegations of sexual misconduct, centers film after film around the Pygmalion theme and has even spoken of his marriage with the much younger Soon-Yi in terms that evoke this story. The late Hugh Hefner built a magazine empire off the commodification of women’s bodies for the male gaze. For each of these men, woman is a kind of artistic project that measures his own masculine triumph.

Donald Trump is just one recent manifestation of a type of misogyny that has been entrenched for millennia. He says bluntly what many men think about women, what too many women think of ourselves. Pygmalion’s eyes have become our own collective gaze.

The president is a stark reminder of how far we have to go. Yet so many women have found in this moment a catalyst for raising defiant voices that demand to be heard. Something truly beautiful emanates from living, flesh-and-blood women when we refuse ever to become silenced statues.

Image Credit: Flickr/Michael Vadon.

is associate professor of Classics at the University of the South in Sewanee, TN. Her essays have also appeared or are forthcoming in Electric Literature, Literary Hub, Eidolon, Avidly, Entropy, Gucci Stories, and elsewhere. She is the author of Horace Between Freedom and Slavery: The First Book of Epistles and is currently working on a translation of Horace's lyric poetry.