The DailyMail has an unsettling obsession with Ariel Winter. A cursory glance at their newsfeed informs readers of every minute detail of her life, be it her “casual figure in a blue hoodie as she stocks up on cardboard boxes” or “her ample bust and toned legs in a plunging scarlet maxi dress.”
But Winter is one of many in a sea of young girls that the media outlet has an unhealthy fixation on. In recent months, the daily shenanigans of 16-year-old Claudia Conway have been dissected and prodded at by DailyMail and other right-leaning news outlets.
And it works: articles about her generate clicks. Claudia Conway, the daughter of former Trump counselor Kellyanne Conway and staunch anti-Trump attorney George Conway, stands at the unique intersection of politics, pop culture and a highly publicized family feud. Her visibility on social media gives us a glimpse into the inner workings of political celebrity, fitting comfortably into traditional narratives of teen angst and Gen Z activism.
And now more than ever, her matter-of-fact social media presence has crossed into the political stream. Two days after it was announced that Donald Trump had tested positive for COVID-19, Conway broke the news that her mom had tested positive as well in a TikTok captioned, “update my mom has covid.” Following that was a chaotic saga of videos and tweets. In another TikTok, Conway reveals that she is “dying of covid!” In a TikTok comment thread, she contradicts Trump’s claims that he was swiftly recovering from COVID-19, saying that he’s “doing badly” — followed, of course, by a blunt “lol.”
By virtue of her familial connections and darkly humorous social media presence, Claudia Conway has inadvertently established a loyal fanbase composed of of mutinous teenagers and liberal millennials. She is now lauded as the “Greta of the USA,” and Elle called her “the whistleblower of our time.” Hollywood director Judd Apatow heralded Claudia as “a bright light of truth.”
Her story is undeniably intriguing: a rebellious teenager speaks out against annoying parents, sending political strategists into a frenzy, and her transparent social media presence makes for an enticing news article. But that is all there is to it. Claudia Conway is not an idol for youth activists stifled by parental disapproval, nor is she the YA heroine destined to destroy the Trump administration from the inside; she is a 16-year-old going through family quarrels that would be better resolved without the constant scrutiny of DailyMail. By squeezing Conway into our idealized visions of Gen Z activism, we place immense pressure on Conway to fix problems on a national scale, essentially absolving responsibility from the policymakers and politicians that have a significant influence in our government.
When Greta Thunberg spoke to the United Nations, she echoed a larger truth about how the burden of real, tangible change is pushed onto Gen Z: “I shouldn’t be standing here. I should be back in school on the other side of the ocean. Yet you all come to me for hope? How dare you.”
In recent years, youth activists — whether it be Claudia Conway, Greta Thunberg, Isra Hirsi or Parkland students — have been consistently labeled as “heroes” to the world’s most pressing problems. But they’ve also faced presidential harassment, death threats and cyberbullying. When we perpetuate this Gen Z savior complex, we push the false narrative that Gen Z alone will save the world; that change can be precipitated without active commitments toward change from policymakers, politicians, institutions and systems.
Gen Z is fed up, and we have made steps towards progress and rewired how we think about structures of inequality. But we are also disillusioned by collective powerlessness, deadly wildfires and hurricanes, political gridlock and a broken policing system that has continually murdered the people that it is supposed to protect. While it may be pleasing to think of Gen Z activists like Claudia Conway as saviors that swoop in and save the day, our systems and institutions require radical change from all generations and all sectors of society.
Kellyanne Conway recently tweeted in support of her daughter: “My daughter, Claudia, is beautiful & brilliant… Like all of you, she speculates on social media. Yet she’s 16. You are adults.”
Maybe she should start posting on TikTok.
Editor's note: A previous version of this article stated that Claudia Conway is 15 years old. The article has been updated to reflect that she is 16 years old as of Oct. 17, 2020.
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