Let's be honest about what we're both doing here, shall we? This is, ostensibly, a review of Ivanka Trump's new book, Rewriting the Rules for Success. Generally, people read book reviews to find out if the book in question is good, but you knew before starting this—as I knew before reading the book—that it is not. While our current historical timeline includes any number of bizarre happenings, we don't occupy a universe in which Ivanka Trump writes a good book. Hell, we probably don't even live in one where she writes a book at all. One of the sillier fictions we collectively maintain is that rich, powerful people author their own work. Perhaps it's comforting to imagine that society's leaders are smart and articulate enough to write books, or that they care enough about the rest of us to want to share truths about themselves. It might be time to do away with that idea.
That Trump most likely uses a ghostwriter is worth pointing out, because the behaviors and achievements we read as markers of success, the bits made legible to the world, are often animated by all sorts of unseen labor. This is funny to think about, in the same way Peter Thiel wanting your blood has a delightful, metaphor-collapsing quality to it. Yes, this book is for women who work, but it's quite obviously for women who work particular types of jobs—the kind that inevitably make the world harder for other women. It is not for the nannies, or the housekeepers, or any other number of women whose work happens largely out of view while contributing immeasurably to how many successful women get to structure their lives.
Nevertheless, the authorship illusion produces some joy, since the book is a boring, dishonest, derivative pile of shit and we all get to pretend Trump worked very hard on it. Even if we imagine that Trump did sit in front of her computer and type each word, the majority of the ideas in Women Who Work come from other people. "I've curated my best thinking, as well as that of so many others, in the pages of this book," she notes in the introduction. These intellectually heavy-hitting others include "thought leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators" (oh my!) as well as a dizzying array of inspirational quotes. From Socrates to Maya Angelou, it's the sort of "curating" one might do by taking a wine-fueled trip through BrainyQuote at 2 AM.
Sometimes the result feels like decisions made at that hour: intensely regrettable. As others have more or less gleefully pointed out, the most egregious instance of this comes when Trump uses a quote from Toni Morrison's Beloved before a chapter on "working smarter," in which she asks, "Are you a slave to your time or the master of it?" She displays the same level of sensitivity and erudition throughout the book. I, for one, felt particularly inspired to "stake my claim" and "maximize my influence at work" when I learned that "early in our country's history, as new territories were acquired or opened—particularly during the gold rush—a citizen could literally put a stake in the ground and call the land theirs. The land itself, and everything on it, legally became that person's property." Manifest your destiny, bitches.
It's these slips that constitute the most revealing parts of the entire project, because Ivanka Trump doesn't have a personality—she has a content strategy. Any reader looking to learn something about Trump as a human being will be met with the kind of inane marketing language that studiously avoids ever saying anything at all. Anyone looking for tips on navigating the workplace as a woman is rewarded with the occasional stunning insight about how meetings are often bad, but mainly with quasi-scientific bromides about how happiness prefigures success. It's hard to pinpoint who this book was written for, but the ideal reader is probably best described as "someone who thinks often about budgeting her time, and never about budgeting her money." The experience of reading Women Who Work is similar to looking at the Instagram account of the worst girl from college: It's fun to mock her, but after a while it leaves you feeling a little dead inside.
It would be enough to say Women Who Work is vacuous, class-blind, and racist, because Trump is vacuous, class-blind, and racist, were it not for another strange facet of modern life: Women, for some reason, must grapple with Ivanka Trump's feminism. Is she a feminist? Is SHE a feminist? Is she a FEMINIST? Such are the pressing questions we are forced to ask in the hell dimension we call Mainstream Discourse.
While the question itself is boring, the fact that we seem unable to say, "Unequivocally no" and move on is interesting, because it reveals something about the state of mainstream feminism itself. The reason Trump has proven so confounding for many feminist writers is that they have a hard time admitting what she is: a conservative woman practicing liberal feminism.
This is why so many critiques of her rely on the notion that she doesn't really mean it. In January, Jill Filipovic wrote of Trump's "dangerous fake feminism" for the New York Times, calling the first daughter "a kind of post-feminist huckster, selling us traditional femininity and support of male power wrapped up in a feminist bow." "While she speaks to the challenges of combining work and family," Filipovic writes, "she makes no demands that her husband 'lean in' at home—maybe Mr. Kushner does do the dishes, but they aren't Instagramming it." As though an equitable domestic arrangement is much of a concern for people who employ an army of household staff. Sady Doyle penned a similarly righteous takedown of Women Who Work in Elle in which she notes that Trump's #WomenWhoWork campaign "is an ad for dresses and handbags; her dresses and handbags are made at facilities that exploit female workers" and that "under the reign of her Instagram-filter feminism, the real obstacles women face are unlikely to ever change." These are both excellent and correct points, but their impact is somewhat lessened by the fact that two weeks prior, and also in Elle, Doyle defended buying a $95 Jonathan Simkhai "Feminist AF" T-shirt as a potentially meaningful feminist act. When your ideology fetishizes women's success as unambiguously and inherently good, it's harder to explain why a particular successful woman doesn't count.
It would be much more honest, I think, to come right out with it: If you are sympathetic to this approach to feminism, if you imagine that one can coherently resist patriarchy while embracing capitalism, then Ivanka Trump is simply the wrong woman saying the right things. Her platform of "empowering women to lead multidimensional lives" is of a piece with a feminism that values slogans over ethics, sorority over solidarity, and with a rhetoric that signals personal identity rather than gesturing outward to real, political action. It's a feminism that believes patriarchy's gravest sin is being an impediment to personal success, and cares more about the women breaking glass ceilings than those left to clean up the shards. It's not an ideology so much as a conspiracy of greed and aesthetics, but it was constructed well before Ivanka arrived—and she knows good real estate when she sees it.
by Brandy Jensen