Why do politicians think it’s cool to insult their rivals’ wives?

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Moya Crockett
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Bolsonaro Macron

Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and Donald Trump have both suggested their wives are better-looking than their rivals’. It’s a reminder that for a certain kind of man, women are only valuable as trophies, writes Stylist’s Moya Crockett.

Back in October 2016, a tape emerged of Donald Trump bragging about grabbing women “by the pussy”. The then-presidential candidate was quick to dismiss his language as nothing more than “locker room talk” – the suggestion being that this was how many, if not all, men spoke when women weren’t around. His great misfortune, Trump implied, was that his private banter had been made public.

Three years later, the world’s great misfortune is that Trump isn’t the only world leader to think and speak of women in such crude and objectifying terms – and his fellow misogynists do so publicly and without shame. I’m talking – and believe me, I wish I wasn’t – about the Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro, who has the dubious honour of being one of the more awful political leaders currently stinking up the world stage.

Bolsonaro, whose presidential campaign last year was marked by feminist protests across Brazil, is cut from the same right-wing, racist, climate change denying-cloth as Trump. But he’s arguably an even more frightening figure than the US president, because he doesn’t even attempt to paint himself as an ally towards marginalised communities and the planet, as Trump occasionally – albeit cynically – does. In recent weeks, Bolsonaro has made international headlines for his astonishing response to the man-made fires currently raging across the Amazon, which has variously involved dismissing panic over the crisis, suggesting the fires had been started by environmental NGOs, and rejecting $22 million in emergency aid from G7 countries

Brigitte Macron and Melania Trump
Brigitte Macron and Melania Trump at the G7 summit

Bolsonaro has also – extraordinarily, even by his openly misogynist standards – derailed the conversation about how best to tackle the fires into a discussion about how his wife is more attractive than other first ladies. Yes, really. This unexpected development came about after one of the president’s supporters posted a meme on Facebook that contrasted a photo of the Brazilian first lady, Michelle de Paula Firmo Reinaldo, with an image of Brigitte Macron, the wife of French president Emmanuel Macron. The accompanying text read: “Now you understand why Macron is persecuting Bolsonaro?”

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The implication, here, is that President Macron was motivated to lead the international calls for action over the Amazon fires because he’s… jealous of how fit Bolsonaro’s wife is? Clearly, it’s a load of sexist bollocks. Yet Bolsonaro – the president of the world’s ninth largest economy – seemed to find it amusing, leaving a jokey comment in Portuguese under the original post in which he entreated its creator not to “humiliate [Macron]… hahahah”.

President Macron has since condemned Bolsonaro as “extraordinarily rude” and “sad”, saying at a press conference that “Brazilian women are probably feeling ashamed of their president”. (Decent Brazilian men will be embarrassed too, of course, but that’s a quibble for another time.) But let’s take a moment to really absorb what’s happening here. In the midst of a diplomatic row about how to handle a devastating climate incident, one of the most powerful men in the world is attempting to undermine a political adversary by suggesting his wife is more attractive than his rival’s partner. It’s not just sexist; it’s pathetic. 

Heidi Cruz
Heidi Cruz, the wife of Texas senator Ted Cruz, was once insulted by Donald Trump

Yet this isn’t the first time in recent years we’ve seen this dynamic play out. A remarkably similar situation occurred back in the spring of 2016, when Trump was still vying to be the Republican presidential nominee. As tensions escalated between Trump and Texan senator Ted Cruz, one of his rivals for the nomination, Trump retweeted a meme that compared an unflattering candid shot of Cruz’s wife Heidi to a posed, pouting photo of Melania Trump. 

“THE IMAGES ARE WORTH A THOUSAND WORDS,” the meme’s text read.

As is so often the case with populist politicians like Trump and Bolsonaro, you don’t have to search hard for subtext here: the purpose of these insults is obvious. Both men clearly see questioning a woman’s sexual attractiveness as an easy – and devastating – way to undermine her male partner. 

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Their attacks on their rivals’ wives also reek of ageism, a form of prejudice that often goes hand in hand with misogyny: it’s no coincidence that Heidi Cruz and Brigitte Macron look like the elegant middle-aged women they are, while the Brazilian and US first ladies are both significantly younger and more glamorous than their ageing husbands. (Melania Trump is actually slightly older than Heidi Cruz, but you wouldn’t know it from her ageless skin.)

To Bolsonaro and Trump, a wife should serve as both trophy, armour and weapon. And so a woman who doesn’t fit within their narrow definition of feminine beauty (taut, youthful, hyper-sexy) is an embarrassment, even a liability, to her husband. This isn’t shocking: we already knew that both men were unreconstructed misogynists. But we can still be repulsed by their public locker room talk – and we should be.

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