In the wake of the devastating Brussels attacks, the two candidates leading the race for the Republican presidential nomination, Donald Trump and Ted Cruz, sparred about their wives late Tuesday night, perhaps thinking that was the true geopolitical concern. Unsurprisingly, the Twitter battle got weird and sexist real fast. Naturally, the candidates attacked one another in the playground style to which we've become accustomed. But this beef also launched some seriously uncool attacks geared at the women both men are married to: Heidi Cruz and Melania Trump.
Here's the recap. It all started when Trump posted, deleted, and then reposted a tweet claiming that the Texas senator created a negative slut-shaming (my words, not his — I doubt it's in his lexicon) ad featuring a photo of his wife from a GQ shoot. "Be careful, Lyin' Ted," Trump warned, threatening to "spill the beans" on Cruz's wife — a threat that, while vague, many believe was referring to Cruz's wife's alleged mental health problems. Cruz's adviser Jason Miller told BuzzFeed that she " experienced a brief bout of depression" about a decade ago. Cruz fired back fairly quickly to tell his competitor via Twitter that, no, his camp didn't sponsor the ad — which is actually just an Instagram meme from an anti-Trump Super PAC in Utah — before calling him a coward and signing off with the hashtag #classless. (Also, note how neither one actually @-replies to the other).
Yes, this was a real conversation between two (technically) grown-ass men running for president in the year 2016 and not part of a semi-scripted reality show reunion special. What a time to be alive!
Is this an exchange that will be remembered in our children's history books? God, I hope not. But still, something can be learned from this childish display of masculine bravado at the expense of two women who obviously do not deserve to receive heat from this out-of-control dumpster fire of an election cycle.
The problems start with those dumb Utah ads that exploited Melania's professional photos. It's fundamentally icky to use slut-shaming methods to attack another person. But using that kind of rhetoric to attack a woman's husband is another layer of gross, because it carries all of those archaic implications that a married woman becomes the property of a man, and that her apparent purity (desirability, virtue, etc.) is a reflection on him.
Using photos of Melania Trump, a former model, and arguing that her looks and sexuality reflect poorly on her husband — as opposed to everything about him as a person that would make him a horrible president— hearkens back to an era when women were seen simply as assets/exclusive sexual property of dudes. Meanwhile, Trump's threat toward Heidi Cruz is equally troubling because it makes a similar attack while potentially throwing in an additional ableist twist.
No one should ever use a woman's looks, health, or apparent sexuality to discredit her. But it's particularly troubling to see these low blows used in a grudge match between their husbands — especially when their voices remain eerily silent. On Wednesday, Cruz responded in a measured but spot-on way, telling reporters, "You probably know by now that most of the things that Donald Trump says have no basis in reality.”
It's deeply frustrating, though, to see two women (especially two who are independently successful) reduced to assets and talking points in the exhausting dick-measuring contest this election has (literally) become. Ultimately, whether Melania Trump or Heidi Cruz are "unfit" to be FLOTUS has absolutely nothing to do with them and everything to do with the xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic Batman villains on the ballot. Both may be their husbands' greatest presidential assets.