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15 December 2016

We should be kind to America’s First Victim – Melania Trump

The wife of the bully-in-chief speaking out against online harassment could be seen as a desperate, veiled cry for help.

By Laurie Penny

My heart goes out to Melania Trump. Admittedly, my heart goes out a lot of places I’d rather it didn’t, often in the middle of the night in naughty clothes. This time, though, I mean it. Married to the world’s most powerful sociopath, mocked and humiliated by left and right alike, a salon-styled lightning rod for all of America’s weird feelings about women, foreigners and politicians, you’ve got to wonder who Melania, born Melanija Knavs in rural Slovenia, can really trust.

Certainly not the liberal press. In a rare instance of actually saying words in public, the future first lady made a speech in a Maryland courthouse where she is pursuing a libel suit against a local blogger and a British tabloid newspaper. In the heavy accent that many believe kept her off a campaign trail ringing with dogwhistle xenophobia, Melania restated in the vaguest terms her stand against cyber-bullying, launched days before the election, when she lamented, apparently with no irony, that “Our culture has gotten too mean and too rough.”

It’s easy to mock this position, and progressives have duly done so. After all, the wife of the bully-in-chief speaking out against online harassment is not unlike Mary Todd Lincoln coming out against sideburns, or Eva Braun starting an inter-faith community centre. But what if something else is going on? What if this, in a veiled, desperate way, is a cry for help?

I’m not the first to notice this — SE Smith writes at XoJane that: “When a shy, retiring woman speaks out and the first words out of her lips are about a dangerously abusive culture, that sounds a little bit like a woman asking for help.” When Melania speaks, more than any of Trump’s adoring female entourage, she looks like someone with a gun discreetly pointed at her back, with her necklines so high her clothes seem to be trying to strangle her and that rictus smile that never reaches her eyes.

That smile is strangely familiar. It took me a long time to work out why, until I saw it on my own face in a shop window, a few seconds after an encounter with a gentleman in the street who took time out of his busy day for a stroll-by appreciation of my backside. It’s the smile you give to street harassers and drunk strangers who corner you at parties when you’ve lost your friends. It’s the smile you give someone who you’re afraid of, someone who might hurt you if you make them feel bad. The lines of that smile are etched into Melania’s face under the makeup, and now she’s training it on the world. I would have a crumb of respect for Trump if he were married to someone equally ruthless and conniving — a Claire Underwood figure, perhaps, a Lady Macbeth for the digital age who we’d all love to hate. That’s not how Trump wants his women. Trump will not be talked back to. His women do what he says, or else. His women must not get old, put on weight, or step out of line. What will happen to Melania if she starts to show her age?

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Imagine being in her position. Imagine being married to that man, having to live with him, back him up, soothe his ego, deal with his tantrums. Her marriage will be under relentless scrutiny for the rest of her life, just as her body has been since she did her first catwalk at the age of five, but if anyone raises the alarm, we’ll be told it’s music and ordered to dance. Do we think that the ham-faced, race-baiting, woman-hating monster about to waltz into the White House respects his third wife as a person? This is a man who slut-shames and humiliates any woman who stands in his way, who is on record boasting about “grabbing women by the pussy”, whose first divorce was granted on grounds of “cruel and inhuman treatment”. In the gauntlet of horrific appointments to the new cabinet — an oil magnate and alleged friend of Russia as Secretary of State, a hero of the alt right movement as Chief Strategist, and Cruella De Vil presumably overseeing Animal Welfare — Trump’s history of violent misogyny seems to have slipped from view. But we must not forget it. 

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No,  Mrs Trump is not the most unfortunate woman in America right now. She will be unaffected by many of the more venal policies of her husband’s cronies, and as the mother of an ex boyfriend once told me, if you must cry, it’s nice to be able to cry in the back of a Porsche. But there are all sorts of cages you can keep a woman in — ask the wife of any Saudi Prince — and this, now, is what American girls are being taught to aspire to. Costlier chains. Shinier bars.

It’s not that the third Mrs Trump never had any choices. Those who dismiss her as a trophy wife miss the point: of course she knew the deal she was making. She has worked harder than most men could ever understand to get to this position, growing up in poverty in the former Yugoslavia, using the only tools of escape available to her in an unequal world that still pays top dollar for its sexist aesthetic. No, it’s not a choice I’d make, but I grew up at a different time, in a different place, and while I can’t respect or admire the path Melania has taken, I can certainly sympathise. This is a woman who has played the Master’s game expertly, and who now has to live in the Master’s house, raising his child, doling out platitudes about abuse as her husband sets about gaslighting the entire world. You might see that as karma. I see it as tragedy. Treating Melania as a real human being, rather than an empty symbol, is one more way of opposing everything her husband stands for.

It will reportedly cost the city of New York a million dollars a day to provide security for the next First Lady, who will live in the Trump Tower with her son, Barron, until he finishes school next year, yet another sentence which makes me wonder if I’m writing a political column or a teen vampire romance. New Yorkers are taking exception to this, in part because the extortionate security bill is plainly unnecessary: Melania Trump was kidnapped long ago. She is now the walking, very occasionally talking, embodiment of the Stockholm Syndrome suffered by a growing cadre of the American political class.  It’s an ugly thing to watch.

Attacking any woman in order to hurt her husband is lazy sexism, and doing it by way of her figure or fashion choices is lazier and more sexist still. This puts me and any other writer with feminist principles at a disadvantage, because at first glance there’s nothing else to Melania: over the years, she has been systematically stripped of all personality signifiers whatsoever beyond her body and what she puts on it. This is how Trump wants his women: as “pieces of ass”, to use a favourite phrase. She drifts in the Donald’s wake like a fibreglass mannequin, a woman commentators regularly declare “a mystery”, despite the fact that her background, private life and, indeed, most of her body are available to inspect at the click of a button.

None of which, incidentally, speaks less of her. It is galling to watch left-wing men, in particular, muster to fling mud at a woman who clearly has, in her own way, very few choices, and is very publicly starring in the reality-television adaptation of American Psycho. We should be better than this.  

I am frightened for Melania Trump. This is a person who cannot put a foot wrong, ever. This is a person whose nude photos and immigration status are the subject of ridicule by those who should know better, because of what these facts supposedly say about her husband. Patriarchy is not a game any woman can win, and Melania is playing it on nightmare mode, in the version where you have to sleep with the end-level boss. The man she is married to has a thug’s understanding of consent and every intention of screwing the world, violently if necessary. How we treat his First Victim sets the tone for the fight to come. Be kind.