Katharine Coldiron ponders Melania Trump and her role as First Lady. There may be more (or less) going on than most people suspect.
The problem lay buried, unspoken, for many years in the minds of American women. It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the twentieth century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night—she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question—“Is this all?”
—Betty Friedan, The Feminine Mystique, 1963
If you Google Melania Trump interview, you won’t get much. She doesn’t submit to interviews very often, in any context. If you read or watch what you do find, you still won’t get much. The longest and most detailed interview I found was in GQ, from April of 2016. Even though Melania obviously spoke at length to the journalist, Julia Ioffe, any trace of a personality eludes the reader, especially during direct quotes. “I chose not to go into politics and policy. Those policies are my husband’s job,” she says to Ioffe.
On her husband running for president: “When we discussed about it, I said he really needs to make sure he knows he really wants to do it, because life changes.”
On shopping: “I prefer quality over quantity.”
In November of 2017, a CNN reporter caught Melania at the Great Wall of China and tried to ask her meaningful questions. “It was a very busy year, and we love to live in Washington,” the First Lady said. “We have a very busy life, and it’s exciting as well. I’m looking forward to work on behalf of the children.”
How does one find meaning in that? It’s the answer of a chatbot.
Melania’s accent shifts in intensity depending on the stress of a situation. Her lips tremble and she mispronounces words when she speaks at a luncheon. Rumor and opinion about her is printed far more frequently than fact; the quotes of others are sprinkled much more liberally through profiles of her than quotes of her own.
Maybe she’s under enormous pressure, in a devil’s bargain of a marriage with the most appalling clown in recorded history. Maybe she’ll smile and squash her opinions for four years, at which time she’ll divorce The Donald and run home to Slovenia with Barron, to live in a matriarchal commune and establish a Slovenian version of Ms. But there’s no evidence of any of this. The evidence indicates that she’s a pleasant enough woman who doesn’t have much to say and is content with a private, lavish life. I’d like there to be more—hell, I’d join that commune—but there just isn’t.
Petula Dvorak, in The Washington Post, ends a column full of adjuration with this: “It’s time for Melania Trump to be more than a blank slate on which women project their fears. She owes that to her country.”
Does she? Does she owe anyone anything because of the man she married?
What is the job of First Lady? Is there a description written down in the White House Users’ Manual? Is it a job, a true obligation, or is it merely an opportunity? We’ve observed a wide spectrum of First Ladies in the 20th century. They have worked mostly on domestic causes with varying degrees of success (Lady Bird Johnson’s anti-littering campaigns changed American highways, while Rosalynn Carter didn’t visibly do much at all). It’s been clear that they are meant to be exactly the right quotient of visible and supportive, with no room for error (critics drubbed Hillary Clinton for each and every stance she took on her husband’s infidelity during the 1990s). Occasionally, history gestures to them as the true power players during their husbands’ terms (Edith Wilson, Eleanor Roosevelt, Nancy Reagan).
Melania Trump has none of these characteristics. Fourteen months into her husband’s 48-month term, she has launched no major initiatives. She and her husband appear adjacent, but not unified, in public—judging only by body language, the way he boards a plane or pops out of a car solo, and she will follow, without holding his hand or taking his arm. Nothing about her public-facing persona indicates that she holds opinions influential to her husband, or indeed that she holds any fixed opinions at all aside from banalities.
And to all this, I shrug. I don’t think it matters. I don’t think Melania matters. I don’t think she’s complicit in the horrors of her husband’s administration, as so many left-leaning women of my acquaintance do (again, “those policies are my husband’s job”). I don’t think she’s in an abusive marriage, as some empathetic women do. I don’t think she’s especially admirable for her grace and her status as an immigrant, as a handful of conservative women I know do. I think she is as Myra Gutin, a historian specializing in First Ladies, put it, “a ceremonial First Lady.” I think she is approximately as meaningful as a mannequin, dressed impeccably, standing on the front portico of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And thus, I believe, the media needs to leave her alone.
I think she is approximately as meaningful as a mannequin, dressed impeccably, standing on the front portico of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. And thus, I believe, the media needs to leave her alone.
Especially with regard to her past and her clothes. The worst offenders of Melania’s dignity were a super-PAC that endorsed Ted Cruz which created a meme image showing Melania sexily posing on a bearskin and targeted it toward a conservative Mormon audience, and the New York Post who in 2016 ran 20-year-old nude pictures of her. These were sleazy moves by sleazy actors. Generally, the criticism of Melania from more respectable sources has either stuck to her husband’s lewd conversations about her with Howard Stern (charming) or has focused on her outfits. None of this is ideal, from a feminist perspective. Do we really need to rag on a woman’s clothes rather than criticizing her substantively? Is this 1993?
According to Kayla Epstein of The Washington Post, “Yes, women in politics should not be held to a different standard than men. But as the role of first lady is a wholly symbolic one, everything a woman in that position dons and does is inherently loaded with symbolism, including her attire.” This column appeared after Melania wore high heels to board a plane to Texas after parts of the state had been totally destroyed by Hurricane Harvey. In principle, Epstein is right. But Melania appears unaware of her symbolic role. (Why else would she have delayed officially taking it on until several months after the inauguration?) She cannot be responsible for the symbolic meaning of her outfits if she does not intend for her outfits to have symbolic meaning at all. Maybe Melania’s handlers should be explaining such things to her, or maybe we should stop criticizing her for not complying with standards that don’t correspond to her life as she has lived it up until now. Of the dozens of photographs of her I’ve seen, she wore flats in just one of them, and that one looked like a paparazzi shot of her picking up Barron from school. For Melania, a public appearance = heels. I think that’s all there is to it.
First Ladies of the recent past have been intelligent and dynamic, matches for their powerful husbands in mind and spirit. This is not the only way a First Lady can perform. Pat Nixon left public life largely to her husband, Bess Truman hated living in Washington, and even Jackie Kennedy, long as her shadow has been, acted as more of an art curator and social hostess than a political figure. There is no inherent harm in a wife who devotes her attention to home and children, as long as it’s her choice to do so. I believe this is Melania’s position. “We know what our roles are and we are happy with them,” she told Parenting about her marriage around 2012. “I am a full time mom; that is my first job. The most important job ever.” In a January 2016 piece in Harper’s Bazaar, she repeatedly mentions the importance of her son: “You know, those hours with your child are really important ones, even if it’s just the two of you, being quiet in the car together.” Unlike most women in her social stratum, she doesn’t have a nanny (or didn’t in 2016, at least). She even publicly thanked Chelsea Clinton for defending Barron’s privacy.
There is no public proof that Melania is living a lie, under the thumb of one of the most powerful men in the world, mute, helpless, horrified. The impression I get from reading interviews and watching her speak is that she is a colorless, pliant person, an anxious public speaker and a caring mother. A woman with expensive tastes and no sense of any secondary significance to her gestures or actions. A woman who understands her own priorities extremely well and has bargained carefully for what she has.
Why must pundits endlessly speculate over her motives, when this interpretation—that she’s not under any kind of duress, but she’s not the kind of First Lady we’d prefer—is available? Probably because it seems so implausible. Since The Feminine Mystique, feminism’s general expectation is that no woman can be satisfied with the crumbs brushed at her from patriarchy’s table. It’s a sensible conclusion; few women are. I am not. But perhaps Melania is. Perhaps she has no deeper passions than to care for her son and prop up her husband. Whatever his faults, her husband makes sure she can dress and decorate however she desires. Perhaps, for her, that is enough. I cannot find it in my heart to criticize her for that.
A model who married into exceptional wealth, Melania has been insulated with a cushion of money and staff for more than 15 years. Surely this is a life she wanted, sought out. She dated Donald, 24 years her senior, for more than six years before they married, so she could not have avoided knowing what she was getting into. Until the 2016 election, the price for her luxurious lifestyle was having this loud dog barking in her face all the time. Although, for me, such noise would be unbearable, it was a price she seemed willing to pay.
So many opinion pieces have been written and so many hashtags have been coined to posit that Melania is trapped in a situation for which the exit is too humiliating to contemplate. “Inside sources” say that she hates the marriage, that she never thought he’d win the presidency, that she’s sleeping with the head of his New York security detail. Maybe. Or maybe she’s sitting comfortably in the same weird, gilded cage she stepped into freely in 2005. Maybe she is that rare specimen: a woman who does not struggle with the problem that has no name. Maybe she is a woman who is happy having her role defined for her by someone else. I have met these women. I have talked to them at length. They are not trapped against their will; they are exactly where they want to be. They have traded freedom for security.
One of the pillars of feminism is that women must have all the choices men have about the way they choose to live. If they choose, they can live the same way their grandmothers did—as stay-at-home moms, housewives beholden to working husbands, secure and voiceless. If they choose, they can live as their grandfathers did, instead—as captains of industry, heads of households, free and in control. To criticize Melania for not using her platform to benefit a particular cause or opinion is as antifeminist as criticizing Barbara Bush for supporting the ERA. She is allowed to choose what she does, full stop.
To criticize Melania for not using her platform to benefit a particular cause or opinion is as antifeminist as criticizing Barbara Bush for supporting the ERA. She is allowed to choose what she does, full stop.
It was Friedan’s job to name the problem for women who were troubled by their own dissatisfaction. The knock-on effect was to un-brainwash women who had been tricked by conformist American propaganda of the 1950s, to show them that they had been fooled into thinking this was all they could be. But what of women who were never brainwashed in the first place? Women who were not unhappy as wives and mothers, who had little they desired to contribute other than what they could achieve as homemakers? I can imagine a certain kind of woman (my paternal grandmother springs to mind) who would have been bewildered by Friedan’s argument. What problem? I love my husband and my son, and I don’t want anything else. Why can’t this be a possibility in 2018, as it was in 1963?
In Melania’s words: “Nobody controls me.”
Maybe Melania has been fooled by a patriarchal superstructure. Maybe she has been trained from birth to believe she has no worth except as a sex object and/or helpmeet, a source of labor and comfort for men. But for this to be my first assumption, to scoff and assume she’s living with wool pulled over her eyes and stuffed into her mouth, grants her exactly the same amount of authority over her choices as patriarchy does. She is an adult woman who has lived in the world. I have no reason to believe she is deluded.
An image that has been in my mind since I began writing this essay involves Margot Robbie’s character from The Wolf of Wall Street. When Jordan Belfort gets indicted for his crimes, his wife says she’s leaving him, and he protests at the callousness of her timing. “What kind of person are you?” he asks. She looks at him for a moment. “You married me,” she says. All along, she has been a trophy wife and he has been a rich husband, and this is their agreement, as plain to her as the nose on his face. There’s no loving companionship between them, no “mutual society,” as some wedding vows have it. It’s a transaction.
I don’t like to imagine living in such a marriage. My priorities are not financial, nor based on appearances. I do not consider myself or my husband a prize. Yet there are people in this world who transact relationships in exactly this way and do not live to regret it. I know this from experience, from observation, and from the family that resides in the White House as you read this. The truly feminist perspective would be to let Melania live her life and stop asking her to do, to change, or to symbolize anything. Let her live. Let her be.