Saran Sanders White House
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Society

In Which Sarah Sanders Weaponizes the Meaning of "Chivalry"

Wednesday afternoon’s post-midterm election press conference at the White House was marked, in part, by a tense interaction between President Trump and CNN’s chief White House correspondent Jim Acosta. A question about Trump’s categorization of the Central American migrant caravan as “an invasion” culminated in the visibly angered president referring to the reporter as a “rude, terrible person” and an “enemy of the people.” Hours later, Acosta returned to the White House only to be told that his “hard pass,” which allowed daily entry and re-entry onto the property, had been revoked.

In a series of tweets, Press Secretary Sarah Sanders stated “President Trump believes in a free press and expects and welcomes tough questions of him and his Administration. We will, however, never tolerate a reporter placing his hands on a young woman just trying to do her job as a White House intern…the fact that CNN is proud of the way their employee behaved is not only disgusting, it’s an example of their outrageous disregard for everyone, including young women, who work in this administration.”

In an era of “alternative facts,” it is perhaps not surprising that events which were aired live could be so egregiously miscategorized in the official government account—video from conference shows Acosta drawing the microphone closer to his body when the intern attempts to take it from him and saying “Pardon me, ma’am” as their arms make contact. The idea of retaliatory action against a member of the White House press corps seems in and of itself Orwellian, but is made more so by the fact that Sanders, in her official capacity as Press Secretary, shared a doctored video of the events in question to justify her statement. However, the White House narrative vilifying Acosta as someone who mistreats young women fits into a larger pattern of this administration using women’s bodies as a battleground to promote a larger agenda.

This is chivalry.

The Romantic ideals of chivalry—bravery, honesty, love of God and country, and, yes, Islamophobia—could easily serve as talking points at a MAGA rally. But certainly no aspect of the chivalric code occupies more of the popular imagination than that of a knight’s duty to preserve the virtue and safety of fair maidens. Indeed, over the course of Sanders’ five tweets, the White House intern’s youth and femaleness are mentioned twice. Acosta’s banning is held up as a defense of the White House employee’s safety and dignity, framing the Trump administration as her victor. But while this is a fine example of Romantic chivalry, it is also just as much an example of true chivalry, which was originally conceived of as an unofficial code of conduct among wealthy men as they navigated the military, nobility, and religion, i.e. politics.

Chivalry and “chivalry” are insidiously linked, and neither has ever really been about defending women. Riding in to the aid of helpless damsels is done to support a larger idea of how the world should work (which includes, by the way, perpetuating the helplessness of said damsels). It’s a public performance, primarily and often singularly interested in promoting an idealized persona of the defender; the person in need of defending merely serves as the means through which to do that. Chivalry exists on the terms of the powerful to the ultimate benefit of the more powerful. Certainly there are intersections of self-interest between “protector” and “protected,” particularly for privileged (white, wealthy, beautiful) women. Many such women can live happily enough in that broad intersection because they know enough about the world beyond the overlap to steer clear of it if they can. But there will always be a part of them, even if it’s only a sliver, that is not served in having others take on their empowerment for them. Because under such a system, those in need of defense will only receive justice as long as it serves those in power to dispense it.
The White House narrative vilifying Acosta as someone who mistreats young women fits into a larger pattern of this administration using women’s bodies as a battleground to promote a larger agenda.
Juxtapose the Trump administration’s treatment toward this unnamed intern, whose fabricated plight has been used to make a move against an “enemy of the people,” with the president’s treatment of CNN’s Abby Phillip and American Urban Radio Networks’ April Ryan during another press conference two days later. Phillip and Ryan, who are both black women, were on the receiving end of the president’s ire on Friday. Phillip was insulted for asking a question about the interim Attorney General’s intentions toward the Mueller investigation. “What a stupid question,” Trump marvelled at Phillip. “But I watch you a lot, and you ask a lot of stupid questions.” Ryan was brought up unprompted in a discussion of the revocation of Acosta’s press pass along with an ominious warning that such a fate could befall other reporters. “You talk about somebody that's a loser,” Trump said of Ryan. “She doesn't know what the hell she's doing...She's very nasty, and she shouldn't be. You’ve got to treat the White House and the office of the presidency with respect.” Three women, all doing their jobs, and yet victimhood and a show of fierce protection is projected onto one—quiet, white, aligned with the goals of the administration—and the other two are not only not offered a modicum of that courtesy but are specifically insulted and demeaned, allegedly for a lack of “respect.” The interest, clearly, is not on the treatment of women but on how making a show of treating women well can reflect positively on her protectors.

Perhaps the more poignant example of this selective chivalry can be seen in the administration’s reaction to Christine Blasey Ford, who testified against then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh. While initially referring to Ford as a “good witness,” Trump quickly began to cast aspersions on Ford’s testimony at a campaign rally, emphasizing aspects of the 36-year-old story she could not clearly recall. (Sanders would later defend the president as “just stating facts.”)

According to the alleged rules of chivalry, as a woman, Dr. Ford should have been eligible for a version of the protection shown to the “young woman” at the press conference, particularly as a wealthy white woman. But controlling her own narrative—on her terms, for her benefit, to the detriment of the administration’s political agenda--meant that she was not following the script that allowed for any such courtesy, either traditional, Romantic, or the kind that’s wrapped in the co-opted language of feminism. The president’s reaction to Ford highlights that chivalry’s primary focus will always be the advancement of an existing power structure: to secure favor one must fall in line and, more importantly, be useful to the larger narrative.

“A man’s life is shattered,” Trump declared (referring to Kavanaugh who was formally welcomed to the Supreme Court in a ceremony on Thursday). Later, he urged the audience to “Think of your son. Think of your husband.” As if they wouldn’t. As if the knight’s image—and agenda—hasn’t been the most important part of this fairy tale all along.