North Korean “first sister” Kim Yo Jong achieved a charm coup during her three days in PyeongChang, where even Western observers were won over by her overtures of reconciliation and her crisp composure. They conveniently forgot, of course, that she serves as the deputy director of the Propaganda and Agitation Department in a country notorious for systematic abuses of human rights. All this prompted other Westerners to lambaste their brethren for treating an avatar of a murderous regime as some sort of self-aware pageant star.
Lost amid the back and forth of fawning and fawn-critiquing was the man Kim set out to upstage: Vice President Pence. The global commentariat concluded that the vice president’s diplomatic performance didn’t even deserve a bronze. But the reality is grimmer still: With Kim as his foil, Pence was the worst possible person the United States could have sent.
One reason Americans fell all over themselves to rehabilitate a dictator’s favorite sibling was their own not-so-dear leader. Trump’s critics like to see his team humiliated. And besides, Pence has put on shows for the Kiss Cam like the one he performed in PyeongChang before, most notably when he walked in and then back out of an Indianapolis Colts game in October to protest players who wouldn’t stand during the national anthem. This weekend, he remained seated as North Korean athletes processed during the opening ceremony and refused to shake hands with Kim. No wonder some found satisfaction in fantasizing that she had cast him a nasty stare on worldwide television.
But there’s something bigger at work here. The flattering reaction to Kim’s appearance was, as my colleague Elizabeth Bruenig pointed out on Twitter, a prime example of “benevolent sexism.” The disproportionate praise Kim received for her arched eyebrows, her Mona Lisa mysteriousness or her understated shows of unity with her neighbors to the south would never have been afforded a man (even if he presided over a democracy). Overcompensating viewers leaped to reward a woman on the world stage, and their rave reviews reeked of stereotyping.
Pence epitomizes the oh-so-manly statesman whose view of his craft makes no room for the opposite sex. His retrograde attitudes toward women are a point of pride; a Post story this summer set the Internet simmering when it revealed Pence refused to eat alone with a woman who wasn’t his wife. Observers are already eager to celebrate a powerful woman, no matter how many gulags her brother presides over, and what better target for an exhibition of female empowerment than Mr. Mulan-Is-Liberal-Propaganda?
When Pence sat stone-faced next to Kim, or skipped her as he circled a table of leaders, he wasn’t just snubbing North Korea — and committing what some say was a grave political error. He was snubbing a woman, and making just as big a mistake in the game of gender politics. The trope of the “shade queen,” as BuzzFeed characterized the misplaced depiction of Kim, often relies on a strong, sassy woman dishing out side-eye to one-up the male gaze. To many Americans, Pence embodies that gaze. They wanted to see Kim take him down a notch.
None of this is to justify hailing a totalitarian dignitary as a female hero. It’s only to explain: Pence’s record on women made his attempt to lord it over one especially likely to backfire. So far, the United States is fifth in the medal count this winter — but is nowhere near the podium on optics.