“This is fun,” Ivanka Trump, played to robotic and windblown effect by Margot Robbie, announced during a 2016 episode of Saturday Night Live. She was appearing on the show’s version of Political Family Feud. She was talking to no one in particular. “I love fun. Every day I schedule 20 minutes of fun.”
It was funny, as parodies go, but it wasn’t quiiiite satire. And it reflected a longstanding challenge the women of Donald Trump’s inner circle seem to have presented for SNL. The show’s sketches have offered up Melania Trump, a princess trapped in a golden prison; Kellyanne Conway, contractually (and possibly emotionally) obligated to dedicate her intelligence to the spinning of her boss’s rhetoric; Tiffany Trump, Tiffany Trumped; and, finally, Ivanka Trump, airbrushed and windswept and robotically content with the world and its happenings. So. Much. Fun. Overall, as the show has struggled to portray a presidential administration determined to change the norms of American government, it has also struggled to interpret the women who are helping to bring those changes about: It has portrayed these politically powerful people, for the most part, as scorned and trapped and helpless and, in Ivanka’s case, simply robotic. As Vox’s Caroline Framke asked, late last year, “Why does SNL keep insisting that the women in Trump’s inner circle don’t want to be there?”
In that sense, Saturday night’s SNL represented a bit of progress. The episode took advantage of the fact that it was hosted by Scarlett Johannson to cast its guest star as yet another iteration of Ivanka. In this case, the Johannsonized Ivanka was starring in her own perfume ad—such an ad being a classic target of SNL satire. The perfume in question? A fragrance named Complicit.
If much of SNL’s treatment of Trump-world women has amounted to progressive fan-fiction—they must be trapped; why else would they be there?—“Complicit” provides a much more realistic take. The title of the sketch (which doesn’t much matter in the live-aired TV version of the show, but matters a lot when the sketch is shared on YouTube and NBC’s site and Twitter and other social platforms) acknowledges what news reports long have: that Ivanka Trump is part of her father’s administration, directly if unofficially. The decisions the White House has made about women’s health care and immigrant families? Trump the daughter, as a seemingly trusted advisor to her father, has been part of them.
It’s an argument SNL makes, cannily, via the less political side of Ivanka’s public image: her status as a fashion icon, as a brand, as a person known both for her looks and for her Look. As the ad’s sultry voice-over explains of the Trump daughter, “She’s beautiful … she’s powerful … she’s … complicit.”
She’s a woman who knows what she wants, and knows what she’s doing. Complicit.
She doesn’t crave the spotlight, but we see her. Oh, how we see her. Complicit.
A feminist. An advocate. A champion for women. But, like … how? She’s loyal … devoted … but probably should’ve bounced after the whole Access Hollywood bus thing. Oh, well.
Also, I’ll bet when she watches Titanic, she thinks she’s Rose. Sorry, girl, you’re Billy Zane.
Complicit: The fragrance for the woman who could stop all this … but won’t. Also available in a cologne for Jared.
None of this is subtle. But it also does away with SNL’s older portrayals of Ivanka being oblivious to, or powerless against, her father’s treatment of women. The sketch’s commercial frame spoofs the candle-lit conventions of many perfume—pardon me, fragrance—ads; it most directly spoofs Dior’s (featuring a golden gown-clad Charlize Theron informing viewers that “the future is gold”) and Lancôme’s “La via est belle” spot (this one starring Julia Roberts, its running refrain “I wish I could be... / perfectly free...”). Perfume ads have long played on themes of freedom-via-fragrance; here are those themes upended by way of that most modern of acknowledgements: “It’s Complicated.” SNL’s Ivanka is not simply trapped, in the way many women of the past could be trapped; she is, rather, bound to her father—and to her husband, her father’s other trusted advisor—in an extremely complicated way. She’s complicit.
Last week, my colleague David Sims pointed out how fragile SNL’s satire—and the relevance of that satire, during a time that finds many Americans craving both laughter and sense-making—can be. The show has had a rocky time covering a chaotic political moment, its jokes biting one week and fairly toothless the next. Last week’s show was a particular dud, Sims noted, because its political “satire” did what the show does when it seems not to know what else to do: It portrayed the extremely powerful, and extremely savvy, members of the Trump administration as low of energy and even lower of IQ. It took refuge in simplicity. Here, with a sketch whose very title suggests the complicated state of the White House and the world, is one more example of SNL being at its best when it wrestles with complexity. Johannson’s parody was deserving of the word “satire”—and a subtle reminder that, when it comes to the policies of the president of the United States, we are all, in our way, complicit.