For American moviegoers, this has been the summer when a former beauty queen who plays a comic book character on the big screen has become an inspiring figure to millions of women and girls. That would be Wonder Woman, Gal Gadot.
It’s also the summer when the most powerful woman in the White House is an assistant to the president with an amorphous role; her sole qualification seems to be her relationship with her father in the Oval Office, and who has become a polarizing figure on the world stage. That would be the first daughter, Ivanka Trump.
Both are proudly Jewish women who began their careers as models, but the commonalities end there. In one of the infuriating ironies of this strange political summer, the movie star actually seems more powerful than the woman who supposedly can speak to the president whenever she pleases.
Halfway through the first year of her father’s tumultuous administration, Ivanka Trump’s role remains as enigmatic as her much photographed smile, as frictionless as the happy family portraits she offers up regularly to her 3.8 million followers on Instagram. We don’t know whether she is exercising real power in the West Wing or playing a character who does so on TV.
This kabuki dance has had embarrassing consequences — such as when Trump sat briefly in her father’s chair on Saturday at a Group of 20 summit meeting in Hamburg, Germany, drawing criticism for taking a seat that someone with diplomatic and government expertise would normally have taken.
The causes she is championing certainly attest to her stated passion of helping “women who work,” which, not coincidentally, is the title of her recently published (and largely panned) new book. As Monica Hesse and Krissah Thompson wrote in a July story in The Washington Post: “This is her portfolio now: Workforce development. Childcare tax credits and paid parental leave — issues that no American Congress has ever passed, and which have become Ivanka’s signature topics, and bellwethers for her success.”
Add to that the important issue of human trafficking. Trump earned rare praise for standing next to Secretary of State Rex Tillerson at a crowded State Department ceremony recently, honoring award recipients who have contributed to the study and eradication of trafficking.
From a feminist perspective, these issues are beyond reproach and beyond partisanship. I can easily imagine Chelsea Clinton championing them in the White House had the Electoral College last November actually reflected the national vote. And even if there’s a subtext of self-enriched branding to much of what she does, we are better off having Ivanka Trump whisper in her father’s ear and attempt to shape federal policy than having no one do it at all.
But talking about women’s empowerment is hardly the same as exercising it. Everything to do with Trump — her understated dress, her muted voice, her unobtrusive presence next to father and husband, and the legitimacy she grants them both — underscores the traditional role she plays as supplicant and hidden adviser. Such as when she was “heartbroken and outraged” by the horrific images of Syrian children after a chemical attack, and reportedly persuaded her father to bomb the place (because that’s how serious military decisions are made). In a brilliant piece in the New Statesman, Helen Lewis compared her to Catherine of Aragon of medieval Britain, who discreetly pleaded with her husband, King Henry VIII, to save the life of Cardinal Wolsey.
“This is the power that women are granted in Trumpworld: softening, humanizing, empathetic,” Lewis wrote. “In this structure, however, the limits of women’s power are sharply circumscribed. The tears of both Ivanka and Catherine of Aragon only provided cover for something that their lord and master wanted to do anyway.”
No wonder, then, that the more compelling example of female empowerment in this summer’s depressing political environment is a likable movie star with an Israeli accent, starring in a widely praised box office hit.
I’ll admit to being captivated by Gadot in “Wonder Woman,” emerging from the cinema with the weird sensation that I, too, could swoosh and somersault down Broadway with my golden arms crossed, and fend off evil to save humanity. For a moment, I imagined a time when a woman could single-handedly, simultaneously overpower many men with deadly weapons, using her strength not for personal aggrandizement or dominance, but only to support the furtherance of peace and goodness in the world.
The fact that Gadot speaks English with a familiar Israeli cadence, that her grandparents were Holocaust survivors and that she served in the Israel Defense Forces, makes it even easier to say, “That’s one of us up there on the big screen.” And easier to tell our daughters, “You may not see a woman as president anytime soon, but at least you can watch this brainy, beautiful, kind-hearted picture of strength smash the bad guys to smithereens.”
In her off-screen appearances — for fun, listen to the interview she did with Katie Couric — Gadot has clearly mastered the delicate task of championing both family values and feminine strength while sounding utterly authentic.
But, hello, this is make-believe! She’s a comic book creation! Back down on planet earth, the misogynist-in-chief continues his demeaning rants and pursues his offensive policies with few women in the administration who have any independent authority to challenge him.
So starved are we for genuine feminist leaders that we substitute fantasy for the real thing. That is effective only until the credits roll and the lights come up, but perhaps we shouldn’t tell that to our young daughters just yet. Let them hold on to the belief that women can help save the world, on our own, without permission from Daddy or anyone else.
Jane Eisner is the Forward’s editor-in-chief. Contact her at Eisner@forward.com
Jane Eisner, a pioneer in journalism, is writer-at-large at the Forward and the 2019 Koeppel Fellow in Journalism at Wesleyan University. For more than a decade, she was editor-in-chief of the Forward, the first woman to hold the position at the influential Jewish national news organization. Under her leadership, the Forward’s digital readership grew significantly, and won numerous regional and national awards for its original journalism, in print and online.