Commentary: From Streep to McCarthy, why women are the ones getting under Trump’s skin

Melissa McCarthy as Press Secretary Sean Spicer during the "Sean Spicer Press Conference" sketch on "Saturday Night Live" on Feb. 4.
(Will Heath/NBC)

Memo to frustrated Democrats trying to rankle President Trump: Try doing it in drag.

While many are still laughing about Melissa McCarthy’s instantly classic portrayal of White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer this past weekend on “Saturday Night Live,” his boss apparently isn’t.

Politico reported Monday that Trump was particularly unhappy that Spicer had been portrayed by a woman. According to a Trump donor quoted anonymously in the story, the president “doesn’t like his people to look weak.” (In a stunning break with tradition, Trump has refrained from saying anything on Twitter about the sketch.)


And now Rosie O’Donnell, the president’s longtime bête noire, has volunteered to play Steve Bannon, the Trump strategist who helped draft a controversial travel ban and, according to a growing media narrative, is the “real president.” (Trump was also Twitter silent on the cold open depicting him sitting at a child’s desk playing with toys while the show’s Grim Reaper version of Bannon sat behind the actual Oval Office desk.) Whether “SNL” executive producer Lorne Michaels will take O’Donnell up on her offer is unclear, though he’s shown a democratic willingness in the past to crowd-source “SNL” casting (see Larry David’s brilliant turns as Bernie Sanders), there can be little doubt it would send Trump into meltdown mode.

For all his alpha male swagger, Trump has repeatedly proved himself uniquely vulnerable to attacks by women, from the millions who marched around the globe the day after his inauguration to Meryl Streep’s lacerating take-down at the recent Golden Globes.

During Meryl Streep’s acceptance speech at the Golden Globes, she condemned President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign-trail comments about a reporter with a disability.

Part of what made McCarthy’s caricature so devastating was the gender switch. Just as drag queens, with their over-the-top makeup and glitter, highlight the performative nature of femininity, McCarthy’s cartoonish aggression — she chomped on gum and mowed down reporters with a Super Soaker squirt gun — turned Spicer’s combative, hyper-masculine persona into a punchline.

It matters that Spicer was portrayed not by any woman, but by McCarthy, a performer who has done as much as nearly anyone to dispel the ludicrous, but once astonishingly mainstream, notion that women can’t be funny. On Saturday, she showed that women can be funnier than men, even — maybe even especially — when playing men.

In yet another layer of significance, McCarthy also happened to appear in last summer’s all-female “Ghostbusters” remake alongside “SNL” cast member Leslie Jones, who was the target of a campaign of virtual harassment led by Milo Yiannopoulos, a professional agitator and writer for Bannon’s Breitbart News who was subsequently kicked off Twitter.

The spoof wasn’t just a brilliant reversal of the comedic tradition of men playing women for laughs on “SNL” (e.g. Will Ferrell as Janet Reno or Kenan Thompson as Star Jones). It was also a delightful rebuke to Trump’s over-the-top macho style.

From bragging about his penis size in a televised debate -- remember when that happened? -- to claiming that his opponent Hillary Clinton didn’t have “a presidential look,” Trump clings tenaciously to antiquated ideas about power, image and masculinity.


During the seemingly never-ending primary campaign, Trump vanquished some of his most formidable Republican rivals by not so subtly questioning their virility -- think “Little Marco” Rubio or “low-energy” Jeb Bush.

From O’Donnell to Megyn Kelly to Streep, women are the ones who consistently seem to get under his skin, and his counterattacks -- mocking their looks, suggesting they have their periods or claiming they’re “overrated” -- only lend to his image as a schoolyard bully.

Not surprisingly, his still very young presidency has already been defined by female-led opposition, including the multitudes who turned out for post-inauguration protests in what, by some estimates, was the largest demonstration in American history, and former acting Atty. Gen. Sally Yates, whom Trump claimed “betrayed” the government when he fired her for defying his immigration order.

Though increasingly outdated, these notions are well-established in presidential politics, where machismo and leadership are often seen as interchangeable.


Ronald Reagan, a product of the Hollywood image-making machine, rarely missed the opportunity to be seen astride a horse. In 1988, the candidacy of Democrat Michael Dukakis was doomed in part because the diminutive Massachusetts governor looked insufficiently tough atop a tank. Barack Obama was derided as “feminine” for his healthy eating habits -- green stuff is for women! -- and his deliberative approach to foreign policy.

In less than three weeks in office, Trump has taken a defiantly bullheaded, my-way-or-the-highway approach to governance, showing little heed for established procedure or traditional checks and balances.

Trump may be the most aggressively macho president since Lyndon Johnson, a famously pugnacious, womanizing commander-in-chief who, according to biographer Robert Caro, referred to his own member as “Jumbo” and was known to leave the bathroom door ajar in an aggressive display of dominance.

Though Trump’s beloved daughter Ivanka has built a brand around an ideal of womanhood that is, at least superficially, more modern than his own, Trump reportedly prefers his female staffers to “dress like women,” a detail that’s sparked a furious social media backlash.


And will, in all likelihood, lead to more women “dressing like men” on “SNL.”

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