In 2011, Vogue ran an unlikely profile, says David Smith in The Guardian: it was with Asma al-Assad, wife of Syrian strongman Bashar al-Assad. The fawning piece was titled “A Rose in the Desert” and the opening paragraph read: “Asma al-Assad is glamorous, young and very chic – the freshest and most magnetic of first ladies.” It went on to admire the “thin, long-limbed beauty with a trained analytic mind who dresses with cunning understatement”. Not once did the article mention her husband’s human rights abuses.
Wheeling out a glamorous woman to distract from a man’s behaviour is a tried and tested tactic. Take Melania Trump. As First Lady, the Slovenian former model always looked great, but barely said a word. Her silence had its benefits: some of Trump’s detractors started to see Melania as a “bird trapped in a gilded cage”. On social media the hashtag #FreeMelania went viral. Others weren’t buying it. Melania was, they said, a “sphinx-like enabler whose silence was violence”, and every time she appeared placidly at her husband’s side “she was normalising his assault on democracy”. Also attacked was Trump’s daughter Ivanka. In a 2017 Saturday Night Live sketch Scarlett Johansson played Ivanka in a parody perfume advert for “Complicit: the fragrance for the woman who could stop all this – but won’t.” Well, Ivanka told reporters after the sketch aired, “if being complicit is wanting to be a force for good and to make a positive impact, then I’m complicit”.