Melania Trump should be a feminist icon. She is determined and self-assured. Despite being one of the most criticized women alive, she remains defiant. She rejects the notion that she is merely an extension of her husband.
The most sacred principle of feminism is choice. Unlike Melania who sought a life of fame and fortune, I made more conventional choices and decided I would find success on a more conventional path. After four years, two degrees, several thousand dollars of debt and an eight-month unpaid internship, I now find myself staring down the barrel of unemployment. Increasingly I am turning to women who achieved the seemingly impossible with much higher odds stacked against them. I need look no further than Melania Trump.
America’s 45th First Lady was born Melanija Knavs in Slovenia in 1970. She became a model, a self-described ‘aqua-eyed beauty’. She developed a penchant for plastic surgery as she soared to unimaginable heights: the penthouse of a golden tower on Fifth Avenue. So she married a rich man? So what? She showed grit.
Melania has been given a tough time since her husband became president. Of course that comes with the territory, but the criticism Melania receives is exacerbated by the fact that she is married to one of the most controversial and divisive political leaders in history. She is constantly compared to her predecessor, Michelle Obama, who is a sort of quasi-religious figure in American popculture.
Michelle is a woman with degrees from Harvard and Princeton who sacrificed her successful career to support her husband and give talks to pre-schoolers about the importance of eating broccoli. That was her choice, a choice that resulted in widespread adoration. In 2019 Michelle Obama was voted ‘America’s most admired woman’ in Gallup’s annual poll for the second year in a row. Melania, not so much. She will mostly be remembered by her refusal to fully embrace the antiquated role of First Lady. She rejected the norms and refused to fulfill many of the traditional expectations. What could be more feminist than that?
After Trump’s election Melania opted not to immediately relocate to Washington. She didn’t care that her decision fueled rumors of marital discord. Her unwavering self-confidence and total disinterest in being likable to 330 million Americans demonstrates tremendous resolve.
You have to hand it to the woman; despite getting married in a dress that cost four times more than the average American’s salary, and declaring with total sincerity that she rejects help and ‘doesn’t have a nanny, just a chef and personal assistant’, she still somehow won the hearts of many working-class Americans, even if the aspirational classes preferred to sneer at her taste.
Melania has been labeled many things; from the classic trope of gold-digger to the more sinister ‘walking, very occasionally talking, embodiment of Stockholm syndrome’ by Laurie Penny in the Atlantic. Penny urged people to ‘be kind to America’s first victim’, which is a perfect example of cruelty dressed as concern. The irony appears to be lost on Penny: to question other women’s feminist credentials and life choices is the anthesis of feminism. But so-called feminists insisted that Melania must be trapped, a helpless victim.
The ‘Melania tapes’ shattered that illusion. The recordings contained her denunciation of the ‘liberal media’ who are ‘against’ her and her husband. This dispelled the notion that Melania is a secret liberal in need of saving. The conversations were secretly recorded and released by her ‘friend’ and former adviser Stephanie Winston Wolkoff, in an attempt to promote her tell-all book Melania and Me. But the tapes didn’t embarrass Melania. She echoed the sentiment of millions of Americans when, speaking about the White House decorations, she asked, ‘who gives a fuck about Christmas?’.
Yes, you can point to Trump repeatedly ridiculing women. But a woman is not an extension of her husband, something many seem to have forgotten. Melania knows better. As she says ‘I don’t always agree with him, but his action is his action.’
Melania has declared that she would prefer ‘people focus on what I do…rather than what I wear’. Though quite funny coming from a former model, this is perfectly reasonable. But, as we find ourselves in our eighth month of lockdown when the basic act of getting dressed feels like an accomplishment, I find it hard not to marvel at Melania’s wardrobe. Whether it was the Vatican veil, the pussy-bow shirt she wore after the infamous Access Hollywood tapes were released, or the ‘I REALLY DON’T CARE. DO U?’ jacket that caused international outcry, Melania, who isn’t always keen to talk, allows her clothes to speak for her. A lot of women find that impressive, or it should be.
Maybe it’s because Melania admitted she spent her time ‘doing Pilates and reading magazines’ instead of climbing the arduous corporate ladder. As someone who has attempted both I can safely say I enjoyed the latter less. The difference between most of us and Melania is she is brazen enough to admit it.
As Melania’s four-year tenure as FLOTUS is coming to a close, she, much like me, will find herself wondering what’s on the horizon. I’m inspired to take a leaf out of Melania’s book. If I demonstrate a fraction of the grit, determination and cavalier attitude to what is expected of me as a woman maybe I too will be soar to unimaginable heights.
We don’t know much more about Melania now than we did four years ago, hence the collective curiosity about the woman married to the most powerful man on Earth. Let’s see how Jill Biden gets on.