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
Lucia Graves
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Lucia Graves
April 28, 2014, 11:24 a.m.

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.

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