Joking About #FreeMelania Sheds A Painful Light On Domestic Abuse

Photo: RMV/REX/Shutterstock.
The entire Presidential campaign, last week's inauguration, and even Saturday's Women’s March have been peppered with so many blink-and-they'll-gif-it moments that the tweets and jokes have basically written themselves. But, Hillary Clinton shoulder-shimmy and Obama/Biden bromance aside, not every meme is a harmless play for retweets.

If you spent time on Twitter or Instagram this week, you might have caught the #FreeMelania jokes swirling around on social media, which suggest that Melania Trump was so miserable at the inauguration, and possibly in her marriage, that we need to save her from the clutches of her husband. As of today, the hashtag brings up 6,976 posts on Instagram and a constantly growing number on Twitter.
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Of course, photos of public figures, particularly those involved in politics, are free for interpretation. But insinuating that someone is in an abusive relationship based on how they appear (or how often they speak), and then mocking them, shows how poorly Americans understand the gravity of domestic abuse and violence. An average of 20 people are physically abused by intimate partners every minute in the United States, which adds up to more than 10 million abuse victims and survivors annually, according to The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence.

We, the people of the internet, don't know whether or not Melania is being abused — and it's particularly tricky territory, given her husband's complicated track record around assault and high-power status — but frankly, that's not the point. At the end of the day, it's never okay to joke about abuse, and it's certainly not okay to publicly assume that someone is being abused for the purpose of making light of it.

"Melania hasn't said anything publicly about abuse or asked for assistance, but if she ever says something, that will be the time to talk about it, not now," says Ruth Glenn, executive director of The National Coalition Against Domestic Violence. "You never want to assign abuse."

Domestic abuse looks different in every single relationship, because — imagine this! — every single relationship is different. We honestly have no idea what's going on in Melania and Donald's marriage, and we shouldn't pick and choose tropes to thrust on them.

"The image of Melania painted in the shadows of her husband, that's not how abuse looks for everyone," says Bryan Pacheco, a spokesperson for the domestic abuse hotline and shelter, Safe Horizon.

When the internet revels in #FreeMelania jokes, that creates an environment in which people in abusive situations may not feel safe coming out and getting help.

This is not to say that you should remain silent if you truly think someone you know is being abused. But there are right and wrong ways to handle that kind of situation, and assuming that it's easy for someone to leave an abusive partner if they aren't physically held captive (like many #FreeMelania posters seem to be assuming) is often the first thing people get wrong.

"When you think about the possibility of a loved one being in a domestic abuse situation, it's natural to think, 'Just leave him!'" Pacheco says. Telling your loved one to simply leave may feel like the quickest way to help, but giving point-blank instructions to a domestic abuse survivor can be disempowering.

"A survivor gets to determine and assess when it's safe for them to take action with an abuser, and when we tell them when to leave, we don't understand the checklist they have to go through," Glenn says. "If leaving was that simple, it'd be a healthier world."

In domestic abuse scenarios, people can be afraid to leave the relationship because of deep internal struggles, logistical complications with children, religious obligations, and financial incentives. Love is another big reason, and some people believe if they wait it out, their partner will change, Glenn says.

The best thing you can do for someone who you believe is stuck in an abusive relationship is offer support. Let the person know that you're there to talk, remind them that nothing they say will make you stop supporting them, and also give them a domestic abuse hotline number. "Many survivors respond to that," Glenn says. "It may take a month, week, or year, but they're more likely to react when they know someone is there for them."

Domestic abuse survivors may feel stigmatized or pressured to be silent, because they're afraid people won't understand or believe them. And when the internet revels in #FreeMelania jokes, that creates an environment in which people in abusive situations may not feel safe coming out and getting help. Not to mention, if you truly believe that Melania is being abused, joking about her situation and thinking, "Well, she got herself into this marriage," only perpetuates victim-blaming.

"If you think she chose [to be in an abusive situation], you're showing a lack of empathy and understanding of domestic violence," Glenn says (though again, we simply can't know if she is or isn't in an abusive relationship, and it's reckless to claim she is without evidence).

As for the memes? Just don't. "Whether it's Melania or someone else, when we make domestic abuse a laughing matter or minimize what someone might be going through, it doesn't help victims and survivors, it makes them marginalized," Glenn says.

Take it from a wise former First Lady: "When they go low, we go high."

If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.
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