In the most recent segments of a “Twilight Zone” episode also known as the U.S. presidential election campaign, there have been ugly flaps about the economy and public education.
I’m joking. No, the outcries were about smiles, beauty and punishment.
This time I’m not joking.
In a world reeling from terrorist attacks, and in an America so wracked with division that one wonders if another Civil War could occur, it might be thought it would be beyond reason that someone (his initials are Donald Trump) would say women who might receive an abortion in a possible future when abortion might be illegal should receive an undetermined punishment. Or that some would demand smiles of Hillary Clinton. Or that hours should be spent examining the physical merits of a possible first lady who once posed nude for GQ (Melania Trump) versus those of Heidi Cruz, who was caught in the type of unflattering, fully clothed photo that almost everyone over age 25 is caught in upon the odd or frequent occasion. But we are discussing all of these matters.
Still, while it is too true that we are in the midst of a presidential election campaign that has long been absent much reason or decency, many ordinary citizens and commentators alike are calling for reason and decency and challenging those who would require smiles of a female presidential candidate, punishment of women undergoing abortions, or traditionally virtuous/beautiful first ladies.
As is often his wont when faced with tremendous outrage over his outrages, Trump quickly combed back from his original punishment call and instead said undetermined punishment should be inflicted upon medical professionals who might perform abortions in that possible future time when abortion might be illegal. He also later said of the Heidi Cruz photo tweet, “Yeah, it was a mistake.” And after issuing his Clinton smile edict, MSNBC host Joe Scarborough experienced intense backlash from women (and more than a few men) who have been told throughout their lives to smile, for reasons ranging from the view that they’d be prettier if they smiled more to their job security depending on an outwardly cheerier outlook.
Of course, Clinton has been subjected to commands about appearance for decades, whether they be to lose weight, get a better hairstyle, soften her voice, or dress in “Star Trek” ambassador pantsuits. If either Melania Trump or Heidi Cruz become first lady, they had better get used to such commands, despite the disgust lots of people expressed over the Battle of the Wife Photos. Because Trump and Cruz are not the first candidate spouses to be subject to pore-by-hair inspection. In 1960, some said Jacqueline Kennedy’s much admired hairstyles were more floor mop than bouffant. Nancy Reagan’s designer red clothing was derided by many during the 1980 campaign.
What remains to be challenged is the fact that for a very long time, many have thought it acceptable to issue all sorts of commands about quite personal matters to all sorts of women they often do not know, including those involving reproductive choices, weight, wearing attractive/seductive/any clothing, whether or not they are beautiful, and yes, smiling. It doesn’t matter if the women are presidential candidate spouses, restaurant servers, journalists, or female presidential candidates. It doesn’t matter if they are attempting to do the jobs they supposedly were hired to do or are just trying to have someone see them beyond a reproductive status, dress or fake smile.
Imagine the anger that would ensue if a whole lot of women issued public edicts about personal issues to men they don’t know. We know Donald Trump’s hair has been manna from heaven for the world’s (predominantly male) editorial cartoonists and late-night talk show hosts. But I can visualize the Defcon 3 situation that would erupt if any (much less many) women issued detailed instructions as to how Trump should cut, color and style his hair in order to help America look great again. What if they queried the male spouse of a female presidential candidate to see if he has it in him to put together a really innovative inaugural wardrobe? Perhaps vasectomies might be illegal in a future world. Should women say that men who might undergo vasectomies in such a time face punishment? You can guess what would happen. What would happen is that those women would be told, and probably in most vulgar terms, to stop concentrating on matters beyond decency or intelligent thought. And to stop being sexist.
I think it’s a very positive occurrence that a great many of us are criticizing these cries for smiles, beauty and punishment. Now we must find it within ourselves to demand a real focus on serious issues. Like, for instance, the idea that women who undergo abortion should not be punished. Or the economy and public education.
Because if we don’t, and soon, we may find ourselves living in a nation possessing few smiles, little reason or decency, and punishment we cannot imagine. With no escape from that particular twilight zone.
Mary Stanik, a writer and public-relations professional, lived in St. Paul until her recent move to Arizona. She is the author of the novel “Life Erupted.”
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