Yael Kohen is a writer and editor who is the author of We Killed: The Rise of Women in American Comedy. The views expressed here are her own.
With less than a week to go until Election Day, Melania Trump is hitting the campaign trail with her husband.
On Thursday, she’ll be in Pennsylvania, speaking about “what a Trump administration's vision would be like for American women, children, and families.” If this were a normal election cycle, there’d be nothing particularly newsworthy about a candidate’s wife stumping for her husband. But this is 2016. And Melania's role in her husband's campaign — or lack thereof — is far from that of a normal political spouse.
Over the course of Donald Trump’s campaign, Melania has largely shied away from public speaking. Who could blame her? Her embarrassing quasi-plagiarized speech became one of the biggest story lines of the Republican National Convention, with some even speculating that her own husband’s staff orchestrated the humiliating incident. (In this stranger-than-fiction election, can we really rule anything out?) When provocative photos of her emerged in the New York Post, she was slut-shamed. That happened again when a (now-retracted) report in the Daily Mail suggested that Melania had also been a high-end escort. (She sued.) All of this, of course, culminated in last month’s Access Hollywood fiasco, taped just months after his nuptials to Melania, which only confirmed the public’s long-held suspicion that pussy-grabbing Donald Trump didn’t, in fact, hold women in the highest regard. After all this, Melania has emerged generally unscathed. She’s simply a hostage to her lech of a husband, the narrative goes. #FreeMelania.
This is the way that women who love to love women have come to shoo away the problem that is Melania Trump. Unlike Trump's daughter Ivanka, who’s leveraging her working mom feminist shtick to offset her father’s grossness, Melania has stayed largely out of the spotlight (and largely out of trouble), tending to her son back at home.
She does not do many speeches. She barely sits down for interviews. She has not proposed any policies, beyond mentioning one issue she expects to tackle as first lady: anti-bullying on social media. (No joke.) Instead, she’s the archetypal trophy wife for the penthouse set, quietly and dutifully by her husband’s side, in those formfitting sheaths and “pussy-bow” blouses. Trump and Melania have created a world where Melania is ever the centerfold, but never the centerpiece. Until she shut down her Instagram feed last year, we got a window into that gilded life: a picture of Melania with her team of stylists; posing in front of Trump’s private jet; relaxing in a triplex penthouse apartment overlooking Central Park. Even her “career” seemed more like a hobby: a jewelry line on QVC, and a caviar-infused skin-care line that ended up in a lawsuit that Melania initiated.
Melania’s reticence has bought her a pass from the kind of criticism that has visited her stepchildren, all active in their father’s campaign. But should it? After all, she’s married to a guy who called a former Miss Universe “Miss Piggy;” denied that he groped a People reporter because, well, “look at her;” and most tellingly, tweeted a photo of his primary opponent’s wife, Heidi Cruz, next to a picture of Melania writing, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” Donald Trump likes to remind us his wife is hot. Yet not a peep from Melania. Juxtapose that against Trump’s notorious attitude toward women — in particular the way he reduces us all (even his own daughters) to our looks — and it’s hard not to see a very simple and retrograde picture: that of the rich, powerful man with a young, gorgeous, and, most of all, silent wife. And not just any beauty, but a former model who was 28 when she met her future husband, then 52.
Fair or not, this is a backward and problematic image for a potential president and first lady, particularly when held up against the Obamas and, especially, the Clintons, both of whom have marriages that to some degree embody the aspirations of modern young couples: that both partners may enjoy busy, successful careers; that neither party needs to recede from the stage for both to bask in the spotlight. This is a modern truth that is becoming even more politically agnostic, by the way. Whether it’s Goldman Sachs banker Heidi Cruz or hedge fund managing director Mary Pat Christie, when’s the last time America met a political spouse with a mandate to just smile and look pretty?
But in conferring Melania with the pass to do just that, we’ve effectively denied her agency, and the responsibility that comes with it. In much the same way women (and men) have had to wrestle with the complicated, messy marital arc of Bill and Hillary Clinton — a history Donald Trump insists on reminding voters about — so, too, must we examine the relationship between Melania and Donald, his third marriage after a lifetime of lascivious exploits lewdly detailed in New York tabloids and during Howard Stern airtime. Is Melania a dupe who awakens one day to find herself married to a megalomaniac? (They’ve been together for 18 years; married 11.) Who are we kidding?
She signed up for all of this the day she said "I do." Trump was never a “private citizen,” nor did he want to be. We have to accept that she knew that going in. In marrying him, she signed up for all the rewards and privileges that come with being a Trump, but now she also has to bear the responsibility that comes with it, too. That doesn’t mean holding her accountable for all of her husband’s sins or infidelities. But it does mean asserting herself in a way that can show us that she is more than just arm candy.
Some women might have a fantasy that Melania doesn’t condone her husband’s misogyny; they feel bad for her. Hence the "WTF" clickbait stories about the way Donald publicly surprised Melania with news that she’d be giving “two or three” speeches before the campaign was out. Yet, nothing she has said publicly disabuses us of the notion that as far as women’s roles go, she agrees with him. As she told Parenting.com a few years back: “It’s very important to know the person you’re with. And we know our roles. I didn’t want him to change the diapers or put Barron to bed.”
When news of the Access Hollywood tape broke in October, Melania was forced to step back into the limelight and defend her husband in a series of interviews. In her sit-down with Anderson Cooper, she took a note out of Trump’s playbook: She blamed the media.
Then, when he asked her directly about accusations that her husband was a groper, she gave us a little flash: “People talk about me like, ‘Oh, Melania, oh poor Melania,’” she said. “People don’t really know me. I’m very strong. I can handle everything. Don’t feel sorry for me.”
Okay, Melania. Tomorrow’s speech is your shot: Show us what you’ve got.