Few female celebrities have been as voiceless as Melania Trump. We know what her voice sounds like — we’ve heard it in clipped, measured phrases at the Republican National Convention, plagiarizing another first lady’s words, or gently chiding her husband for his Twitter use on 60 Minutes. But when Melania speaks, even when she seems to be talking about herself, she manages to say nothing at all.
She’s a PR dream: an exquisite, uncontroversial void.
When Melania became the first lady of the United States, that void began to overflow with other people’s understandings of her. Because she says so little, we fill every appearance, every hand swat and scowl and veil, with meaning. For critics of the president, she’s become a symbol of futile resistance — a testament to the seduction of Trumpism, but also to the impossibility, once you’ve affixed yourself to his particular set of politics, of escaping its consequences. After her first appearance as first lady, memes proclaimed “Blink Twice If You Want Us To Save You” and #FreeMelania took over Twitter, while headlines proclaiming “Melania Hates Donald: A Theory” and “Details Emerge of Melania’s Misery as First Lady” proliferated.
After footage emerged of Melania slapping away her husband’s grasping, outstretched hand during Donald Trump’s first international trip in May, it was treated as an act — however small — of active resistance. In that moment, looped across the internet on repeat, she became a cipher for a country frustrated, infuriated, or disgusted with Trump but nonetheless still yoked to his side. The “hand slap that launched a thousand theories” was taken as proof that she hates her husband “as much as we do.” When, later in the trip, she wore a black veil to meet Pope Francis, the meme wrote itself: Dress for the job you want.
Just four months into the Trump presidency, Melania’s image has proven the most malleable in the White House celebrity universe: If she means nothing, she can also mean anything — and become the most prominent symbol of misery under Trump.
The job of first lady is, above all, a visual one. While the president speaks, and does, and acts, the first lady stands, and smiles, and listens. Hence the obsessive attention to her wardrobe, her walk, her look, her body, her poise. In Melania’s debut as first lady, she wore a Ralph Lauren jacket in an exaggerated, mod-ish pale-blue color — a ‘60s style silhouette that, when paired with gloves and a mini-bouffant, gave off a distinctly Jacqueline Kennedy vibe. The look suggested that Melania, the former lad-mag model, was sophisticating her image, or at least countering the claims of vulgarity that often accumulate around her husband.
Less time was spent analyzing her outfit, however, than her spacial relation to her husband: In one shot, she scowls directly behind him, averting her eyes; in another, the Obamas each put a hand on her back, guiding her up the White House stairs after Trump speeds forward without her. There were plenty of images of Melania half-grinning against the gray sky that day, but the ones of her grimacing — and aided by the Obamas — were circulated across the internet and repurposed as dour emblems of Trump’s disregard for women, his utter lack of dignity.
Since the inauguration, Melania has remained largely out of sight, ensconced with her son Barron in Trump Tower. Ivanka, meanwhile, has taken up the majority of tasks usually relegated to the first lady, regularly at her father’s side, attending state dinners, and advocating for her own pet policy projects. Unlike her husband, senior adviser Jared Kushner, or her mother-in-law, Ivanka has learned to how to speak — in speeches, via social media, in televised interviews — but always with extreme care.
Unlike her father’s, Ivanka’s speech is precise, incredibly controlled, and unwavering in its message. She’s the polished first lady, attempting to negotiate an image as a put-together, have-it-all, tempering force on her father. She, too, is a PR dream — only unlike her stepmother, who says nothing at all, Ivanka’s learned to polish each word, each Instagram, to its least offensive iteration. And she’s been skewered for it: To be on point in defense of Trump’s administration is to be, as Saturday Night Live declared, complicit in its actual effects.
Melania’s absence, her unknowability, makes her far harder to lampoon. Unlike Ivanka’s confident social media declarations of allyship and female empowerment, Melania’s Instagram account posts sporadically, often with a sort of third-person detachment that’s come to distinguish Melania’s speech and writing. “Official Portrait of First Lady,” reads the caption for, well, the official portrait of the first lady — in which Melania, wearing a black suit jacket, crosses her arms in a pose reminiscent of a CEO of a woman’s clothing company. Her massive diamond ring gleams from the lower left-hand corner; her eyes stare squarely ahead, with her lips slightly open.
Some joked that it looked like a glamour shot from an ‘80s mall, but that flatness was part of the point: Melania, a former model, was trained to set her face in a way that suggests blank desire. She’s incredibly beautiful, but ultimately forgettable; her primary task, like so many mid-level models, is to create an aura of hotness. There’s no there there, which is part of why our focus turns to the straining effort of the photo’s argument, its attempt to say something, rather than the substance of it.
Melania’s aloofness isn’t new. She’s always looks more at ease when she is literally and figuratively centered — and alone. Is it her, or is it Trump — he of the infamous pumping handshake, whose hands wander to his daughter’s rear, who pushes world leaders out of his way — who doesn’t know how close people should stand to each other? Maybe Melania’s awkwardness is, in fact, a subtle defense: a way to reconfigure herself away from his touch.
That’s a tempting way to read it. Equally tempting: buying into the (unsubstantiated, but narratively compelling) rumor that Melania’s been conducting an affair with a Trump Tower security guard, or that she’d never actually move to the White House, even as plans solidify for her to permanently join the president in Washington, DC, on June 14.
It’s crucial to remember that if Melania’s behavior is periodically unruly — at least for a first lady — its documentation is always accidental. The flick of the hand, the collapse of her face into scowl: These are moments of discomposure, when the façade of her docile femininity begins to pull at the seams. They are not, based on any available evidence, portions of some premeditated, multipronged campaign of defiance.
It would be a mistake, no matter what those photos capture, to pity Melania. Back in April, visual artist Kate Imbach analyzed 510 images posted, at various points, by Melania to Twitter. “She is a Rapunzel with no prince and no hair,” Imbach wrote, “locked in a tower of her own volition, and delighted with the predictability and repetition of her own captivity.” Melania chose this life, and she continues to define its parameters. The effort to decode her image as some sort of post-election icon of resistance ultimately says very little about Melania — and far more about the continuing struggle, and the amorphous, frustrated desire, of resistance itself.
Anne Helen Petersen is a senior culture writer for BuzzFeed News. Petersen has a Ph.D. from the University Of Texas and wrote her dissertation on the gossip industry.
Contact Anne Helen Petersen at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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