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


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.
Pygmalion 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.
My 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.

Aeneas, My Grandfather, and the Memory of War

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In the first book of Vergil’s Aeneid, we meet the hero as he is tossed at sea in a storm sent by the vengeful goddess Juno, who hates him. He throws up his hands and, in his first speech of the epic, proclaims lucky the ones who lie dead and buried in Troy. This is a moment of great despair; with it Vergil presents Aeneas as a man constantly on the point of just giving up. So why does he go on?

Many feel he has no choice. As an agent of Rome’s imperial fate, his personal desires cannot guide him. There is no doubt that Vergil’s Aeneas is a man torn nearly in two by what he wants and what he must do, yet there are moments in the text where Aeneas’s private desires and public mission form an uneasy alliance. One of these comes just after the storm has ended and Aeneas, along with a few of his men, has washed ashore on the coast of Carthage. He needs his men to keep going despite their “grieving hearts.” Close to losing heart himself, he dons a brave face for his men and utters one of the epic’s most famous lines: “Maybe one day it will be pleasant to remember even these things.” Although this public utterance is at odds with his inner turmoil, it nevertheless helps the reader to glimpse the sort of private life he envisions if and when the mission succeeds.

When I first read this line as a teenager, I found it appalling and infuriating — Of course they will never remember any of this with pleasure! His men have experienced war, death, exile, homelessness, divine wrath, and find themselves yet again in a dangerous, unknown land. How could Aeneas offer such false hope? To me this line was blind to the full extent of their suffering. It took years for me to come to terms with Aeneas’s words here, and this happened only gradually as the result of a deeply personal reading of the text.

My reaction to this line changed profoundly two years ago in the aftermath of my grandfather’s death, an event that forever connected in my mind the story of the epic and my own family’s history. My grandfather, a veteran of some of the bloodiest combat of the Second World War, was able, decades later, to experience exactly the kind of memory Vergil’s Aeneas describes. He at last provided me with an illustration that I could really grasp of what motivates Aeneas’s desire one day to remember past sufferings with pleasure. Although my grandfather forms an unlikely parallel for Aeneas, the two are linked by their horrifying experiences of war.

John McCarter (Papaw) was born in 1922 and grew up on a small farm in the Appalachian mountains of East Tennessee. In December 1942 he enlisted (along with four of his brothers) in the army with the full knowledge that he would go to war. When asked in later years why he signed up, his answer never wavered: If he hadn’t, another boy would have been drafted in his place.

Papaw had never spent much time outside of East Tennessee before reporting for basic training at Fort Benning, Georgia. There, he made one of the great friends of his life, an Italian American from Pennsylvania named Joe Romano. Papaw later confessed to my brother that he and Joe promised each other they would get in touch with the other’s family if something happened to one of them; I imagine many young soldiers made such promises. This would be a promise simply too painful for my grandfather to keep.

In 1943 Papaw set out with the 3rd Infantry Division on a converted cruise liner to Casablanca and then traveled across North Africa, where the fighting was already over for the most part, to Tunisia. From there he went to Sicily on the heels of the Allied invasions, and thence to Salerno. It would be on the Italian mainland that he would find himself on the front lines of heavy combat as part of the Allied assault on Monte Cassino and the amphibious landing at Anzio. Papaw’s journey mirrored that of Aeneas: from Tunisia (site of Dido’s Carthage) to Sicily to Campania to Latium. Wars have a devastating tendency to repeat themselves.

The casualty numbers from Monte Cassino and Anzio are staggering by any measure. Tens upon tens of thousands of people died. Somehow Papaw survived. At Monte Cassino he and a friend named Frank (a talented card shark, according to Papaw) were separated from their unit after it came under assault. Amid the artillery barrage Frank lost his helmet, so Papaw gave him the liner from his own, which, though hardly an effective defense, calmed him. They hid in the mountains, at one stage taking cover from enemy fire in a creek bed, for two days before making it to an aid station.

Joe Romano was killed at Monte Cassino on November 5, 1943. News of his death would reach Papaw afterwards in Naples, where he was sent to train in preparation for the landing at Anzio. The allied forces would be pinned down there for months, and Papaw, exhausted, was eventually pulled off the front lines and sent to a hospital in Naples, then home. He was suffering from what we now believe was combat fatigue, and it was a fellow Tennessean named Sgt. Crawford that recognized his condition was poor and likely saved his life. There are no doubt a thousand things I do not know about what my grandfather endured and what he had to do to survive. But those are not my memories to share.

Growing up I always knew Papaw had been in the war, though he rarely spoke of it. He certainly would never have marched in a parade or invited accolades. He lived a quiet, simple life. He read, worked in the garden, played with his grandkids, argued (at times relentlessly) about politics. He loved to tinker. And he took care of my grandmother, Gladys, as she grew frail with dementia. But the war was always present in the background. My grandmother might reveal that he had awoken her yet again by shielding her from enemy fire in his sleep. It would creep out in his dismay as again and again men went to war with one another.

As a teenager I was too intrigued by my own daily dramas to ask him much about his service. Then in college I became deeply interested in the Italy of an altogether different past, that of Vergil and Horace, and embarked on my own Italian adventure at the age of 21 to study abroad for the summer. I saw some of the same places he did — Salerno, Naples, Anzio — under vastly different circumstances. A few days after my return, I went to his house, prepared to tell him all about my trip. I did not expect that he would be the one opening himself up to me.

We spent the whole day poring over my photos and maps on his living room floor, and together we compared our different paths through the same Italian soil. Although I cannot imagine that Papaw ever looked back on his experiences with pleasure, I am certain that his conversation with me that day was a source of pleasure for him. By then it had become increasingly important for him to remember, to acknowledge that part of his life but anchor it firmly in the past.

Much is necessary for such remembering to occur. Time must intervene and be filled with fresh memories of a life well lived. One has to feel that the suffering mattered. My ability to go to Italy and walk in the same places he fought gave him such assurance. These places were frozen in his mind in a state of turmoil, but my experiences of them animated them with new meaning. Somehow what he did meant that I could live a very different life, that generations of his own family flourished because of him. In the end it was the deeply personal sense that he had accomplished something for those he loved that took the bitter sting out of remembering a painful past.

What Aeneas holds out to his men and to himself is the possibility that just maybe they will have a life like my grandfather’s — the one thing that could make such suffering bearable. A life filled with family that grows across generations, defined not by the pain of the past but by the peace of mind that, with enormous luck, comes once the intensity of war’s fury has receded. Aeneas’s address to his men exposes his own personal hopes for life after war; consolation comes not from the promise that he will found an empire he knows nothing about but from the possibility that he may simply enjoy his life again one day.

Aeneas is by no means ready to remember anything with pleasure when Dido bids him to recount Troy’s fall, an act of memory that brings him, in the opening words of Book 2, “unspeakable grief.” When he finally arrives in Italy, “wars, horrible wars” await him yet again. Aeneas’s final act in the epic, his retributive killing of Turnus, shows him drinking deeply of wrath and fury, and Vergil offers us no hint that such violence can ever be mollified. We already know as early as the first book — it is unalterable fate — that Aeneas will die shortly after the epic’s conclusion. He will not live to see his son come of age or generations emerge from his acts. Rome may win, but Aeneas himself suffers profound personal loss.

And yet memory remains of crucial importance to Aeneas. As he marches out to face Turnus in the final book, yearning for battle, he pauses for one last embrace with his young son. “Remember me,” he asks, “in your ripe adulthood.” He recognizes that memory is no longer his to hope for, but he may yet bring about for his son the kind of life that was once a consolation for himself and his men. It is not Rome but a long, peaceful life that he urgently wants to bequeath to his son.

My grandfather helps me to understand this kind of remembering as well. The last time I saw him at his own home, before the final days spent in hospitals and nursing homes with heart and kidney failure, he made a similar request of me. Knowing he would die soon, he asked me simply to remember him. The task of memory had now been passed to me, and with this request Papaw, like Aeneas, signaled his readiness for his final act to begin. Whereas remembering is a pleasure only the living enjoy, being remembered is a solace left to the dying.

To me, Aeneas’s desires to remember and be remembered resonate inextricably with my grandfather’s life and death. The gulf between me and the mythology of the text contracts, and I can see the stakes faced by Aeneas with greater clarity. Viewing Aeneas through the lens of my grandfather helps me see just how poignantly human he often is. This is a humanity that readers have not always granted Aeneas; he is simply duty-bound, pious, at times merely the prototype of an ideal.

Interpreting the Aeneid in light of my grandfather’s WWII service is related to the ways in which that war influenced how so many read the poem. Viewed earlier in the century as a monument to imperialism, it was in the war’s wake that Vergil’s readers, who had witnessed firsthand the dangers of such movements, started to recognize the private cost of Aeneas’s mission, and to uncover a strand of pessimism running alongside the epic’s nationalistic trajectory.

Just as these works rarely emerge from the sweep of history with earlier readings intact, so too must they be reread as we change. The reflection of my grandfather that I see in Aeneas bears witness to the ways in which we bring our own histories to bear in our acts of reading. The Aeneid that I read at eighteen is not same one I now read twenty years later as a mother of two young children, and it is not the same one I will read if I am lucky enough to share my grandfather’s longevity. Some of the best moments of reading come when there is a mutual disclosure between reader and text and bonds are formed — both of affinity and difference — that keep bringing us back to find new meanings unlocked. One of the reasons such ancient works endure is their ability to transform along with us and to shed light on who we are both collectively and as individuals.

My grandfather never read the Aeneid, and if he were still here he could take issue with how I have read him. He might tell me that I have gotten his story all wrong. But in the end the memories we have of the dead are not that different from texts to be interpreted. How we do so depends upon who we are and our private ties to those we remember. In the end, this is my grandfather as I construe him and the meaning that I derive from his life will change as I myself change. I look forward to getting to know him again and again throughout my life. In so many ways he lives on.

Image courtesy of the author.