In Praise of Donald Sterling's 'Girlfriend from Hell'

Did the woman at the center of the Sterling controversy do us a disservice by telegraphing his ugly comments to the world? Donald Trump thinks so.

Donald Trump leaves the stage after speaking at the 2011 CPAC conference in Washington DC on Thursday, February 10, 2011. (National Journal)

You've probably read about Donald Sterling, the Los Angeles Clippers owner who lit up the Internet by instructing his then-girlfriend not to publicly associate with black people and saying a lot of other racist things in a recently released recording. Now Donald Trump is out with a strong condemnation of the girlfriend, V. Stiviano, calling her "despicable" and "the girlfriend from hell" for allegedly setting him up.

Trump seeks to cast Sterling as the victim in this situation, arguing Sterling was "out of it in terms of his whole mentality." (So don't blame him for what he said, he was hacked, or something!) And it's not just Trump beating the Sterling-was-a-victim drum.

Of course, Sterling's comments were remarkable not just for the racism on display, but for the sexism. Consider, for example, that the whole premise of his racist remarks was controlling what Stiviano puts on her Instagram feed and whom she brings to basketball games. Holding his own racist opinions wasn't enough for him, apparently. He had to impose them onto his girlfriend and her actions.

"I don't want to change," he told her of his insistence she not associate with black people. "If my girl can't do what I want, I don't want the girl. I'll find a girl that will do what I want! Believe me. I thought you were that girl."

While I hate to reward Trump's perennial trolling, his literal demonization of this woman is interesting because he's decrying something that should be starting to sound familiar: women who empower themselves and other victims of bigotry by elevating comments made to them in private. In doing so, these women make enemies, but more pressingly, they communicate disturbing realities about their private experiences. (Stiviano's attorney insists she did not release any recordings to the news media but confirmed the recordings are "legitimate.")

Take Anna Gensler, the artist who set the Internet ablaze last week with her method of exacting revenge on creepy online predators using the dating app Tinder. Gensler's approach was to draw nude portraits of anyone who sent her degrading messages, with their sexually explicit comments juxtaposed alongside the sketch. After she published the results to Instagram, her work was picked up by Slate, Jezebel, and the like. The responses from the men she exposed ranged from "really angry" to "a little bit offended," though nobody has yet accused her of being the "Tinder user from hell."

Photographer Hannah Price took pictures of men who catcalled her on the street. That photo series was bandied about the Internet under the title "my harassers" but Price has said her intent was more complex than merely shaming these men. It's not meant to incite social action, she told National Public Radio at the time. Rather, it's merely an observation, a way of holding up a mirror to these men.

Haley Morris-Cafiero, a woman who photographed men who mocked her for being overweight, was less mysterious about her intent. "I've been hearing comments like this for much all my life," she wrote in Salon in 2013. "Maybe someone else would have yelled at them, or shrunk inside. But I don't get upset when this happens. I pulled out my camera, and set up a shoot."

There are a lot of differences between what these women did and Stiviano's situation. There's the artistry; the fact that Stiviano had a personal relationship with this man; Stiviano's denial of going public with the message; the possibility that her actions are a response to a lawsuit filed by Sterling's wife (yes, he has a wife). But if we set motives aside, there's an important common thread.

If she is actually behind this tape, as Trump is suggesting, Stiviano managed to draw attention to a powerful man's unacceptable behavior — behavior that, though its existence was a known quantity, was allowed to persist. Her recording is far cry from art, but it's going to change the way people think about race and sex and the NBA, and particularly, Donald Sterling.