Last week, the US presidential trip to the Middle East and Europe was hailed as an unexpected victory for one member of the Trump family: the elusive first lady, Melania, who has mainly been AWOL since her husband’s election win, living separately in New York and making barely a handful of public appearances.
To some, the international tour was a showcase of her dignity, glamour — and even resistance. On the stop in Saudi Arabia, where Melania dressed demurely but left her head uncovered (as have many other foreign women like Angela Merkel, Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton), the Washington Post’s Kathleen Parker said that the first lady and her stepdaughter Ivanka “made a lasting impression on Saudi women…with their feminine power.”
Melania’s “subdued star power” was also noted by New York Times’ Mark Landler after her visit to Rome, where she shared a brief joke with the Pope about a Slovenian dessert and visited a children’s hospital. Still others gleefully celebrated the moment when she slapped away her husband’s hand as they walked along a red carpet at an airport in Tel Aviv, recalling her fake smile from inauguration day. Images of the hand-swat went viral and the Post’s Parker went so far as to say it was a political act. By not taking her husband’s hand, she argued, Melania “became every American woman who donned a pink-kitten hat to protest the then-new president.”
Decoding the silent, reclusive first lady has become a minor obsession for journalists, political commentators and comedians. On Saturday Night Live, Cecily Strong has parodied Melania as a storybook hostage, a beauty imprisoned by a beast. (The hashtag #FreeMelania went viral leading up to the Women’s March.) Likewise, writer and artist Kate Imbach dove deep into Melania’s social media feed, analyzing photos of Manhattan shot from up high in Trump Tower, a hermit crab on the beach at Mar-a-Lago, and selfies in which her face is obscured by huge sunglasses. Taken together, Imbach argues that these images show that the first lady is a passive victim, and compares her to “a terrified little girl held captive in a ogre’s fairytale castle.”
But there’s a troubling sexism at work in this view of Melania as a woman without choice or agency. It’s similar to the take that Ivanka Trump, despite all evidence to the contrary, is a progressive feminist. When it comes to women — particularly white women — there’s an impulse to overlook their failings, to search for something redemptive about them, and to assume they’re victims or covert allies.
This belief that women are morally superior, or incapable of misdeeds, is popular in some feminist circles: if women ruled the world, we’d never have wars, goes the popular saying. But, as feminist and author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, pointed out in a recent Chatelaine interview, that doesn’t acknowledge the full and flawed humanity of women: “I think that there are women who are good and kind, and there are women who are not and that’s the whole point of being human,” she said.
Insisting that Melania and Ivanka are somehow, deep down, truly good at heart, lets them off the hook. For example, many have interpreted Melania’s decision to stay in New York as a virtuous maternal choice made to protect her son, Barron, and to allow him to lead a normal life. This reading ignores the fact that her choice to stay in New York costs American taxpayers (many of whom are now at risk of losing their healthcare, thanks to her husband) a fortune in security costs. Viewing Melania’s silent obedience in Saudi Arabia as “powerful,” insults the fierce and seriously courageous efforts being made by Saudi women to advance their rights in a country where women can’t drive, can’t travel or get medical care without male permission, and where they don’t have the full vote.
And setting the bar so ridiculously low for Melania that she is congratulated for something as basic as being pleasant to sick children, is a reminder of the racist double standard endured by Michelle Obama — including from Donald Trump who criticized her two years earlier for not covering her hair on a trip to Saudi Arabia. If you’re unclear of what’s meant by “white privilege,” just imagine the outcry if Michelle Obama had been as reluctant, absent and aloof as Melania Trump has been in the first months of her husband’s presidency. Though she came across at every event and public appearance as intelligent, warm, relatable and funny, Obama was routinely caricatured as a “angry black woman” and a radical who hated white people. We project in equal abundance but opposite sentiment when it comes to Melania: she must secretly be kind and morally upright.
But if you take Melania at face value, without projecting assumptions onto her, and assess what she’s actually said and done — as well as not said and not done — you find a woman who is anything but a victim. She said as much in an Anderson Cooper interview last year, in which she defended her husband against multiple accusations of sexual assault and harassment. “I’m very strong. And people — they don’t really know me,” she said. “People think and talk about me like, ‘Oh, Melania, oh poor Melania.’ Don’t feel sorry for me. Don’t feel sorry for me. I can handle everything,” she added.
So here’s an alternate theory to explain Melania: She’s selfish, spoiled and unsympathetic. She lives where she chooses, despite the cost to Americans, she swats her husband’s hand away despite the cameras, she wears what she chooses, like the $51,000 Dolce & Gabbana coat she sported at a lunch with fellow spouses of G-7 leaders in Italy despite the extravagance. (The median annual US household income is about $56,000.) And while Trump family handlers have said she’s stayed out of the limelight because she is a private person, in a libel lawsuit that she brought forward earlier this year, it was revealed that Melania sees her high-profile role as first lady as a “unique, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity… to launch a broad-based commercial brand.”
A recent report also suggests that Melania is not an innocent bystander to her husband’s actions. In fact, it seems she exerts a great deal of influence over her husband, and is more than just complicit in his decisions and actions. According to Politico, she regularly alerts him to news stories that make him look bad, and has criticized his communications and press team.
Of course, if Melania wanted to be better understood, there’s nothing stopping her. She could give more interviews, or host events, or demonstrate her values by championing a worthy cause, as Laura Bush did with literacy and Michelle Obama did with children’s health, but she hasn’t. It’s time people stop making apologies for her. After all, she’s never asked for forgiveness.
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