Trump controversy could do a good thing

ctn navarro hughes trump offense exchange_00004014
ctn navarro hughes trump offense exchange_00004014


    Leaked Trump video sparks heated exchange


Leaked Trump video sparks heated exchange 01:03

Story highlights

  • Trump video, some Republicans' denunciation of his treatment of women is opportunity for discussion, says Ruth Ben-Ghiat
  • She says same men and women have long sought to control womens' bodies by overturning abortion rights
  • Ben-Ghiat: Trump's talk and actions might also prompt us to reexamine our notions of American masculinity

Ruth Ben-Ghiat is a professor of history and Italian studies at New York University. Her latest book is "Italian Fascism's Empire Cinema." The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Once again, courtesy of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, women's bodies are headline news in this election. We've heard him talk about how women are supposed to look and act. We've heard him demean and humiliate women and call them disgusting, pigs and slobs. We've seen him dissect the physical ailments and qualities of Hillary Clinton the way he would a farm or laboratory animal.

Now we're drilling down, as it were, to the female parts Trump seems to care most about: not brains and hearts, but bottoms and breasts and vaginas. The first two are the hot buttons of femininity. Ask any plastic surgeon, including the one Trump liked to take his girlfriends to, or launch any adult video game or website.
The last two, breasts and vaginas, are the givers of life. In them resides the immense power of the female sex, and around them a world of male anxiety and political struggle. Trump is not alone in finding breastfeeding and menstruation frightening -- or, as he is more likely to put it, "disgusting."
    Rudy on Trump tape: 'men at times talk like that'
    Rudy on Trump tape: 'men at times talk like that'


      Rudy on Trump tape: 'men at times talk like that'


    Rudy on Trump tape: 'men at times talk like that' 01:47
    This situation presents an opportunity. The historic encounter between a misogynist everyman and the first female major-party nominee for president is the perfect time to open a dialogue about gender relations that can sustain our scarred nation long after the votes are counted.
    A first talking point is the most politically charged: the rights of women to control their own bodies. GOP leaders have finally admitted that Trump's deep-seated hostility to women presents a challenge to governance. You can't speak for the American people if you despise half of them. Yet there's irony, if not rank hypocrisy, in Republicans who are suddenly insisting -- because they have daughters -- that they find Trump's attitude toward women indefensible.
    These same men and women have long sought to control womens' bodies by advocating the destruction of pro-choice organizations such as Planned Parenthood.
    Abortion has hardly been discussed in this campaign, but it remains perhaps the last unbroken mast of the GOP's sinking ship. The Republicans now making a show of defending womens' dignity might acknowledge the contradiction between saying that it's bad to grab vaginas, but necessary to subject them to government authority. That could be a basis for starting a dialogue.

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    Then there's the matter of how slow institutions have been to address workplace harassment in a meaningful way. Trump is a case in point: His very long history of accusations of molesting and humiliating women on the job was known to the GOP leadership, who resolutely stuck by him no matter what. Many corporations and enterprises have Trumps who are harbored at the expense of employee well-being and productivity -- and it's important to note that men also fall prey to this, including by bosses who are closeted.
    The GOP has acted in a similar way, sheltering Trump, even through the Roger Ailes blowout at Fox, because it was against their interests to do otherwise. Women are now speaking up in unprecedented numbers about their situations. Let's hear back from American institutions and businesses on the matter.
    Finally, Trump's talk and actions might prompt us to re-examine our notions of American masculinity. What kind of men are we teaching boys to be? Trump, who incarnated to millions the male ideal of success, must be plenty frustrated at the sudden backlash.
    He earned the nomination for being exactly who he's always been: a charismatic leader in the boardroom and, he says, the bedroom, and an "alpha male" who seduced Americans with promises of a firm hand. Gov. Mike Pence may be backpedaling from his running mate now, but he used to be impressed by what he called, over and over, Trump's "broad-shouldered'' -- that is, manly --- leadership.
    Trump will be Trump was the mantra of many of his GOP supporters. This is what men do and say, in the locker room, on the sports field, and according to his disgraced aide and defender Corey Lewandowski, around the dinner table as well. In all these places, boys learn to be men. They listen to how we speak about ourselves, about each other, and about women.
    However this election goes, and whatever our politics, most Americans would probably agree it's unhelpful to have derogatory language about women streaming forth from every form of media, initiating girls and boys into the world of sexism extra early. Trump's not going to change but we can use this fraught election to open a national conversation about how to do better. It can't be hard to go up from here.