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How Gisele Fetterman became the right wing’s favorite super villain

Tucker Carlson and others use a familiar blame-women tactic.

Gisele Fetterman, wife of Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), attends Pennsylvania Gov. Josh Shapiro's swearing-in on Jan. 17. (Mark Makela/Getty Images)
5 min

I started my twice-a-decade rereading of “The Handmaid’s Tale” a few nights ago, and one scene that sticks out every time I pick up the book is when the miserable Janine is made to recount her sexual assault, then to assume responsibility for it. Her fault, her fault, Janine’s fellow trainees chant, surrounding her and pointing. This is the magic trick of Gilead’s worldview; this is the magic trick of a lot of conservative worldviews. Men are the ones in charge of what happens, but the women are the ones to blame.

Anyway, the next morning a friend sent me a clip of Tucker Carlson.

In a Tuesday evening segment, Carlson and Candace Owens discussed President Biden and Sen. John Fetterman (D-Pa.), who is seeking inpatient treatment for clinical depression while simultaneously recovering from a stroke. Carlson doesn’t believe either man should be in office — Fetterman because of his illnesses and Biden because of, Carlson claimed without evidence, diminished mental capacity due to age. But the point of that particular segment wasn’t to blame the politicians. It was to blame their wives.

“Why is Dr. Jill not the villain in this story? What is her problem?” Carlson demanded, asserting that a “a woman, a spouse, who loved her husband” would keep her husband away from campaigns. “What a ghoulish, power-seeking creep.”

“Absolutely,” Owens agreed. “These women are monsters.”

This wasn’t a new narrative in conservative media. “Jill Biden and Gisele Fetterman should be ashamed of themselves,” Laura Ingraham declared on air a few weeks ago. “Who’s the bigger elder abuser, Jill Biden or Gisele Fetterman?” radio host Jesse Kelly tweeted a couple of days after that.

“Jill Biden and Gisele Fetterman are failing their husbands,” read the headline of a recent Washington Examiner column, the body of which went on to claim that “both of these men are arguably victims of terrible women.”

This column linked to a Twitter poll put up by conservative commentator Matt Walsh titled “Who is the worst wife in America?” (In addition to Jill and Gisele, the other choices were Meghan Markle and Jada Pinkett-Smith, and no, I do not think it’s coincidence that three of these four options are immigrants or women of color).

The attacks on Gisele, in particular, are dizzying in scope and ambition: It was her fault that her husband ran for Senate. It was her fault that he won. It was her fault that her children were not dressed more formally for their father’s swearing-in. John Fetterman, according to one line of grotesque and specious Twitter speculation, struggled with depression because his wife wouldn’t stop seeking the spotlight. But then it was also Gisele’s fault when, to avoid the spotlight brought on by his hospitalization, she decided to take their children to Niagara Falls. “Gisele Left-Her-Man,” the Free Beacon declared.

Did John Fetterman feel left behind? I don’t know, but one could imagine that both parents would be relieved for their children to be far away from Washington right now, to a place where the local news site’s leading headline — I just looked it up — wasn’t about their father or their mother but rather, “Marineland walrus Smooshi and her calf flown to new home.”

It’s not hard to guess why pundits are going after Jill and Gisele instead of Joe and John. Attacking someone who is ill or elderly simply because they are ill or elderly is beyond the pale in our culture (for now, at least), even for those pundits whose flexible morals usually find a way to drain-snake around any barricades of decency.

On May 17, Gisele Barreto Fetterman, wife of Pennsylvania Lt. Gov. John Fetterman (D), accepted the Democratic nomination for Senate on behalf of her husband. (Video: WTAE)

But by placing blame on the wives, these commentators get to spread harmful messages against the president and senator while having plausible deniability against charges of ableism. The commentators are not — heavens, no — throwing mud at these poor men. They are merely scolding the women who should know better. It’s ableism, with a little sexism, as a treat.

Why do I think it’s sexism? Maybe it’s not! But I keep thinking about this: For several years, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) suffered accusations that she’d lost a step, that it was time for her to retire from political life. Whether you believed this or not, the fault was placed at Feinstein’s feet. I do not recall conservative pundits repeatedly declaring that Richard Blum (Feinstein’s husband, who died last year) was a “ghoulish, power-seeking creep.”

“Feinstein needs to do a live on camera interview, no subject off limits,” Ingraham tweeted last year, before Feinstein announced her planned retirement. “Why are they shielding her?”

Women are to blame when they don’t retire. Women are to blame when they don’t get their husbands to retire. Women are to blame when they don’t stand by their man. Women are to blame when they stand too close. Women are to blame.

Her fault, her fault, her fault.