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What Should a Political Wife Be?

On Melania Trump and the limits of feminist sympathy

Jungyeon Roh
Jungyeon Roh

For the past year, Melania Trump’s silence has hung around her like an intriguing and prohibitively expensive perfume. She has spoken on the campaign trail less than any prospective first lady in modern memory; when she did speak it was in borrowed words that did not reveal much about her personality or individual state of mind. When you Google her, it sometimes seems there are more questions than answers, written in the language more commonly used to sell serialized paperbacks than discuss political spouses. Who is Melania Trump? Where is Melania Trump? Why did Melania Trump disappear?

Devoid of anything else to analyze, most of the pop cultural depictions of Melania have caricatured this sense of mystery and sought to fill in the blanks regarding her interior life. In June, the celebrated author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie published, in the The New York Times, “The Arrangements” — a fictional, melancholic, and surprisingly empathetic imagining of Melania’s inner life, casting her as a kind of Clarissa Dalloway of Trump Tower. (“There was a story about some of his angry supporters with swastikas on their trucks, and she cringed reading it. Extremes of anything discomfited her.”) Saturday Night Live has taken a similar approach with its recurring segment “Melania Moments” — brief, almost Jack Handy–esque monologues in which Melania (played by Cecily Strong) wistfully ponders such existential mysteries as where passersby go when they exceed the view from her Fifth Avenue tower (“Is there a Sixth Avenue? A Fourth Avenue?”). On The Late Show With Stephen Colbert, the Broadway star Laura Benanti centers her recurring Melania bit around the popular assumption that she is “trapped” in the gilded cage of her wealth, sending out covert SOS’s to the American public. Earlier this week, Benanti did a segment in which Stephen Colbert interviewed her and she spoke supposedly in her own words, except someone was clearly right off camera feeding her lines. “I’m fine,” she assured Colbert, amidst a flurry of squinty blinks. “I am certainly not blinking out in Morse code that someone else is in the room telling me what to say.”

More recently, in the light of the Billy Bush tape and allegations of her husband’s sexual misconduct, another bit of Melania mythology has emerged: The notion that she is fuming just below the surface, not-so-secretly furious with her philandering husband, and perhaps even ready to kick him to the curb. This idea was taken to its logical end last weekend when Saturday Night Live aired “Melanianade,” a faithful parody of Beyoncé’s cheater-kiss-off video “Sorry.” It was funny, but it also felt like a bit of progressive-feminist fan fiction about the motives of the more traditionalist Trump clan, imagining that all of the women who have so dutifully stood by his side and cleaned up his messes — Ivanka, Tiffany, Kellyanne, and his “one black friend,” Omarosa — were secretly ready to send him packing with a fiery, Beyoncé-esque retort. Wishful thinking.

Then two nights later, Melania Trump finally broke her recent silence, when she sat down for two interviews: an appearance on Fox and Friends and a one-on-one with CNN’s Anderson Cooper. The Cooper segment was a truly surreal bit of prime-time television, more reminiscent of the previous episode of Westworld than the previous episode of Anderson Cooper 360. Sticking to what felt like a well-rehearsed script, Melania dismissed the accounts of the women who had come forward and accused her husband of sexual misconduct and borrowed some of his oft-repeated truisms to rail against the media’s supposed anti-Trump bias. The most infamous moment of the interview came when she haltingly justified Trump’s lewd comments by saying that Billy Bush had provoked him — a claim that the tens of millions of people who have seen that video can easily dismiss as false. “They were kind of, uh, boy talk,” she said. “And he was lead on, like, egg on, from the host to say dirty and bad stuff.” She then gave a chilling little pageant smile, as though she thought she had delivered the line perfectly, just as rehearsed. Nailed it, she seemed to say to herself.

Getty Images
Getty Images

Throughout the rest of the interview, Melania continued to unfurl empty and illogical absurdities: She seemed much less bothered by Natasha Stoynoff’s allegations that Trump had sexually assaulted her than she did the allegations that Melania Trump would be “friends” with Natasha Stoynoff. She, the spouse of someone who has used Twitter to obsessively bully and belittle his opponents, said with a straight face that her mission as first lady would be to combat social media bullying. If there is a Pulitzer Prize for Keeping a Straight Face, I would like to offer Anderson Cooper my early congratulations.

After this interview, those who up until now had maybe-kinda-sorta sympathized with her, who had dreamed of some secret, and perhaps even feminist, interior life of Melania Trump, had come to a crossroads. Perhaps it was finally time to admit that there was no there there.

For liberal feminists, each election cycle has its boogeywomen — those ladies who have risen to power or prominence while clinging to traditional gender roles, voicing anti-woman policies, or reaping the benefits of the patriarchy only because they know how to stroke its needy ego. In 2008, of course, the boogeywoman was Sarah Palin — the tough-talking, infant-toting, anti-choice conservative who became her party’s first female nominee for vice president. Even if you found her beliefs and policies abhorrent, as many women did, you still had to admit that she was a working mother in a position of power, a female governor whose career was utterly unimaginable without the gains of feminism. Which was perhaps why her complete lack of preparedness to be vice president rattled liberal women most deeply. “Palin’s candidacy was testing my own beliefs about how I respond to women in power,” Rebecca Traister wrote in Big Girls Don’t Cry, her incisive book about gender in the 2008 election. “My reactions to her were all tied up in her gender, a factor that I had always believed, as a matter of course and principle, should neither bolster nor dim impressions of a person’s goodness or badness, smartness or dumbness, substance or lack thereof.”

In this election cycle, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway has played a similar role, as, at times, has Wharton-educated businesswoman and faux-Republican Ivanka Trump. But perhaps the greatest boogeywoman of 2016 has not been someone who challenges our reactions to women in power so much as someone who clings, almost anachronistically, to old-fashioned ideas about (dis)empowerment, femininity, and unequal marriage: Melania Trump. As the CNN interview showed, Melania does not champion other women so much as she suggests that she is above them, beyond them, and somehow immune to the messy indignities of gender — which has become an unfortunate shortcoming in a moment when Trump’s gaffes have increasingly placed the lived realities of gender disparity at the center of the election.

If we have had sympathy for her, it’s because so much of this story has been out of her control: Melania did not choose the life of a political spouse when she married Donald Trump in 2005. There is something vaguely horrifying, in a Kafkaesque way, about the way Melania Trump’s life has played out: What if you woke up one morning and had to assume a job you had neither the interest nor the constitution to perform in the traditional way? “It takes a lot of guts, being [Melania],” The New Yorker’s Lauren Collins admitted in an otherwise-not-terribly-laudatory essay. “Can you imagine, for a moment, mustering the self-belief to put yourself forward as the First Lady of a European country?”

It’s a tricky concession to admit what was so clear from the Anderson Cooper interview: that Melania doesn’t have the diplomatic mind of a modern political spouse, or at least of our concept of a modern political spouse. (In a GQ profile, an old acquaintance was quoted as saying of Melania, “She’s smart for the things she’s interested in, like jewelry.”) It had been easier, before the interview, to pretend that maybe she secretly did have some kind of political savvy, or that she had been hiding some essential part of herself from us. There had been a reluctance, especially from women, to pile on Melania too much, because we did not want to stoop to the reductive, worn-out sexist stereotypes she’d been stuck with: The Gold Digger, The Not-Too-Bright Model. We didn’t want to deny her agency. We knew too well how that felt — thanks in no small part to men like her husband.

But sometime between the Anderson Cooper interview and the third presidential debate, I used up any of the feminist sympathies I had yet to extend to Melania. Perhaps it was because the only truly convincing moments of her interview were her assertions that she didn’t need anyone’s sympathy. “I’m very strong,” she told Cooper. “People, they don’t really know me, people think and talk about me, like, ‘Oh, Melania, oh, poor Melania.’ Don’t feel sorry for me.”

The person I saw in that interview was not the disempowered, silent model-wife, but a woman who has chosen to use her considerable economic and social power solely to diminish the concerns of women who do not share her privileges. We are weeks past the point of playful and comic assertions that there is some “other” smarter, more subversive Melania hiding out below the surface. We do not want to deny Melania agency by presuming she is solely the one-dimensionally loyal, beautiful wife of a rich man — or by presuming that she must conform to a role that she never signed up for. But we are denying her agency if we fail to note how little she has done with every opportunity to complicate our picture of her, or how she has showed her support and idle complicity in the rise of a candidate whose administration would make daily life worse for women, and whose campaign already has.

So, I will indeed take her at her word and not feel sorry for Melania, not even for a second. Because you know who else didn’t hide her reluctance to be first lady of the United States of America? Michelle Obama. One of the subtler contrasts playing out during this pathologically unsubtle election cycle has been the divide between the current and prospective first ladies. (For the first time in history, there is only one “prospective First Lady;” the other and increasingly likelier option, of course, is that we will soon be grappling with our inaugural first dude, which will be a whole different kind of gender-political shitstorm.) Following them both over the past few weeks in particular has given me whiplash: We are watching one woman wrap up a triumphant reinvention of the once-ornamental first lady role, while watching another blithely nonprepare to be, as the journalist Kati Marton said a few months ago to The New Yorker, “the least experienced and least prepared First Lady in history.” There are, of course, differences in education, ambition, and backstory that cannot be overlooked, and in this sense Michelle has the upper hand. Still, in her remaining days in the White House, Michelle Obama is proving, with a forceful grace, that we need not treat Melania with lace gloves. One can retain a sense of private mystery while still being a public advocate; one can deliver a rousing stump speech on female empowerment and a few days later rock the hell out of a Versace gown. “When did we hear or read any great stories about my husband or about me?” Melania complained to Anderson Cooper. “The true stuff. The facts. The real stuff.” Whatever “stuff” she was alluding to there might be the greatest enigma of all.

An earlier version of this story inaccurately described Kellyanne Conway as the first woman to manage a major-party nominee’s presidential campaign; in fact, there have been previous campaigns managed by women.