reading the signs

Ivanka, Dressed in White, Is Always Selling Privilege

Photo: @IvankaTrump/Twitter

Trump women are like dime-store versions of medieval icons — gilded, decorative surfaces that silently communicate dense meaning. Consider the now-ubiquitous photo of Ivanka Trump promoting Goya beans, posted soon after Goya CEO Robert Unanue recently declared America “blessed to have [Donald Trump] as our leader.” The remark’s irony was noted by those in the company’s large Latinx customer base who see no “blessings” in border walls, “caravan” warnings, voter suppression, children in cages, or a raging pandemic disproportionately killing their loved ones.

As high-profile figures such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Julián Castro, and Lin-Manuel Miranda lent their celebrity to a Goya boycott (hashtag #Goyaway), Ivanka countered with her own star power, posing on Twitter with a can of black beans, captioned with the company slogan “If it’s Goya, it has to be good” written in both Spanish and English. The image inspired predictable outrage for its likely violation of federal ethics laws and for the general cluelessness of the First Daughter inserting herself into a corporate kerfuffle during this moment of utter cataclysm.

It’s not hard to imagine why the tone-deaf gesture provoked such a strong response, but the image itself is worth a deeper look.

For one thing, the photo feels weirdly dissociative. In an all-white outfit —white silk blouse with long flowing sleeves, white skirt, gold chain-link choker, colorless manicure, and her usual silky-straight, ultra-blonde blowout — a smiling Ivanka holds the beans close to her face with one hand while the other hand floats gracefully beneath the can, “presenting” it to the viewer. The image unsettles us because of how hard it is to make any kind of organic connection between its two components: this vision of pampered, upper-class, and crucially white womanhood and that $1.89 tin of frijoles.

The proximity of the black beans to Ivanka’s outfit also causes unease. Everyone knows how easily white fabrics, especially silk, can be stained and ruined. To dress in all white is to advertise your perfection of surface. Your freedom from stain or blemish. This is one reason wedding gowns are white — to emphasize the bride’s status as a morally and physically spotless object. For centuries, in many Western countries, white attire was worn only by the wealthy, since keeping such garments clean was impossible for poor, working people. An all-white outfit also conveys extreme distance from labor of any kind.

This is not the picture of someone who would cook or serve a pot of black beans. In this outfit, Ivanka looks barely able to risk a cucumber sandwich. In her pristine ensemble, she demonstrates not love or connection to the products Goya makes or the people who consume them, but her extreme distance from them all. Ivanka wore a similar all-white, labor-averse outfit recently to promote her new, self-appointed side gig as labor expert — her jobs initiative is called “Find Something New,” purporting to advise unemployed workers on new career paths.

Ivanka’s distance from the beans is also, of course, racial. Given the photo’s political context — the outcry over the President’s white-supremacist policies and Unanue’s endorsement of them — those emphatically white clothes only underscore her own emphatic personal whiteness, her white privilege. The picture then actually embodies the very reason for the Goya boycott: the disjunction between Trumpism, with its celebration of wealthy whiteness über alles, and the needs and well-being of most of America’s Latinx population.

The photo is reminiscent of another, more shocking image: the photo from last August of Melania Trump holding Paul Anchondo, the 2-month-old son of a Latinx couple murdered in a racially motivated shooting in El Paso. There, too, the struggles and tragedy befalling the Latinx community were reduced to a tableau of staggering callousness.

Smiling above the orphaned baby’s head, Melania seemed as blithely unaware of the gravity of the situation as Ivanka does in her bean photo. In both images, smiling, impeccably groomed, seemingly dissociated, mannequin-like white women convey the administration’s cruel, disconnected, and transactional policies toward people of color — who are never more than props in a photo op.

Oddly, while much in Ivanka’s Goya photo feels jarring and unnatural, her gesture looks strikingly natural. The way she holds that can is instantly familiar to anyone who’s ever watched American daytime television. In countless game shows such as The Price Is Right or Let’s Make a Deal, everyday items — including groceries like canned beans — get lovingly presented, held, stroked or pointed to in exactly this manner. And almost always by “spokesmodels” — the glamorous and (ironically, given the job title) mute helpers.

Whether the items are part of the game (“Guess the price!”) or its prizes, their real purpose is to advertise the companies sponsoring the shows. Game shows featuring branded products are really just long advertisements. And even the game-show models themselves are more products than personalities, generically provocative women — with showgirl figures, long manes, false lashes, and usually white skin — who lend their commercial sex appeal to otherwise ordinary items.

While yoking the concepts of “Ivanka” and “black beans” creates real cognitive dissonance, the sight of her lovingly framing a tin can (contents aside) is perfectly legible in the world of American pop culture. She seems entirely at home beaming and pointing affectionately at an inanimate object because she lives in and is saturated with the world of corporate advertising. Her body speaks its language fluently — a language that commodifies everything from beans to female sexuality. This photo reminds us that Trump’s presidency is, in the end, a treacherous game show with very high stakes — and Ivanka its No. 1 spokesmodel.

Ivanka, Dressed in White, Is Always Selling Privilege