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The Looking-Glass Slipper: Why We Love Ivanka

For starters, she's not a man — a very specific man, that is

In the wake of the New York Times's exhaustive investigation into Donald Trump's behavior around and toward the women in his world, the campaign turned to the most humanizing female in his entourage: his daughter Ivanka. "He's not a groper," she told CBS News.

Sending out your daughter to talk about whether you think with your dick is maybe the strangest thing about Ivanka's role in the Trump campaign, which is already pretty weird. Answering questions about sexual conduct is, very specifically, the kind of damage control that political spouses do. We don't usually expect children to express insight into their parents' libidos, and parents are rightly offended if their children are asked about it -- though perhaps CBS should get a pass on this one, since it's Ivanka's father who brings up sex with her the most.

News outlets have widely noted how often Ivanka steps into the role typically reserved for a candidate's wife. She's the one who introduced her father when he announced his candidacy. At his rallies, Trump calls on Ivanka more than his wife Melania. He trusts Ivanka to stump for him on her own, while Melania tends to travel mutely at his side. On policy matters, it's Ivanka, and not Melania, who is reported to have more sway; he claims she's his "top adviser" on "that whole subject" of "women and women's health." (Though her only success to date appears to be steering him into the outskirts of moderate territory on Planned Parenthood.) It was Ivanka whom Donald named first when asked which female historical figure he'd put on the $10 bill (he eventually landed on Rosa Parks, who'd already been mentioned by Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz).

If America persists in valuing candidates who present a "two for one" deal (the kind the Clintons have always offered), one can assume it's Ivanka they'll be thinking of as Trump's partner and counterweight -- because that's exactly the way the media has portrayed her. She's "the quiet power behind the throne," according to Politico. She's "the ballast in a ship periodically tossed by waves created by her increasingly embarrassing father," in Forbes's words. When Saturday Night Live attempted to parody a Trump administration (back when it was still possible to imagine such a thing as a big joke), First Lady Melania dispensed heavily accented malapropisms while Secretary of the Interior Ivanka swanned in to announce projects being completed "ahead of schedule and under budget."

Ivanka's CBS interview started with the question of her father's roaming hands but moved quickly to her apparel company's search for "the perfect work bag." Post-interview praise was enthusiastic regarding both style and substance. They loved her dress and thought "she made a very good point" about that Times article! "She represents her father very well ... no matter what you think of him politically," the anchors concurred. Gayle King summed up the segment: "Ivanka Trump, you go."

That Trump appears to publicly respect his daughter more than his wife isn't that surprising. Trump has discarded two wives already, and has boasted about the prenup he secured for the third: “There comes a time when you have to say, ‘Darling, I think you’re magnificent, and I care for you deeply, but if things don’t work out, this is what you’re going to get.’" Children are different. Trump doesn't seem that interested in his children -- "I'll provide the funds and she'll take care of the kids," he once told Howard Stern -- but at least he has not limited his financial responsibility toward them.

The media's infatuation with Ivanka has more mysterious origins. When the mainstream press describes her, she is most often defined by what she's not. Profiles in Vogue, the New York Times, Chicago Tribune, and Politico have told us that as a young woman, "there was no sense of teenage rebellion." She has “no sense of entitlement and ... has not seem[ed] to have inherited [her father’s] style nor his crackpot ideas.” She is “politics-free” and “never dwells on scandal.” She "leaves policy details to her father." In her office, “you’ll never find a wall adorned with framed magazine covers” and she’s avoided “the life of a feckless socialite.” She “never loses her cool.”

She’s not argumentative or opinionated, not egotistical or entitled or loud. She's not political or scandalous or angry. Even when ascribed more positive attributes, the emphasis is on what she doesn't do: She is "supremely well-behaved." She is "atypically calm" and "carefully considers her words when she speaks; she's measured and thoughtful."

Ultimately, what she’s really being praised for is not being a man — a very specific man, of course. She is the Anti-Trump. It's even more than that, though. She’s being praised for not being masculine. Maybe it stands out because of the hyperbolic, heavy-handed (if small-fingered) bluster of her father. Ivanka definitely benefits from the exceedingly low bar he sets, but also from not busting out from the expectations set by us all.

When writers remark on her “polished femininity," her “poise” and “grace” and “urbane self-assurance,” they're marveling at what she doesn't say -- and opening up room for people to project onto her all sort of optimistic fantasies about what influence she might wield. Perhaps, Politico mused, she's even “willing to allow that someone else may be right, rather than re-framing issues ... to come out on top.” She is the kind of small-c conservative woman even the liberal media can love.

This affection echoes the liberal media fiction that followed Laura Bush around. She was the good Bush, remember? She was secretly pro-choice! She liked to read! Perhaps, as liberals, it feels good to rescue the reputation of women we want to like, but that's no less sexist than all the other unasked-for negative projections that women fight back on every day. Just because our assumptions about Ivanka sidle her into the middle ground of the political spectrum doesn't make it OK to read our preferred meaning into her silence. We owe her the dignity of her own opinions -- even if those opinions aren't ones we share.

Besides, whatever low bar of normalcy and decency Ivanka hurdles, it's still less than what this country deserves. Goggling at her streak-free shine means ignoring the curdling ugliness of what she contains -- not the Trump genes, necessarily, but his mind-set. She may distance herself from his grosser statements, but she's never contradicted him. Most damningly, she wants him to be president. At some point, tolerant head-shaking at family dinners turns into Chris Christie in heels.