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This weekend, Melania Trump reportedly breezed right past her husband, didn’t even try to walk join arms or walk with him, as she de-boarded Air Force One. It was another gesture by the first lady, the media noted, that seemed to diss to the president. She then spent Sunday “looking on,” expressionless, while her husband excitedly greeted cheerleaders at a Super Bowl party.
While these are nice tries at reading relationship cues, or simply observing people doing things, no matter how many times Melania ignores her husband, or swats his hand away, or wears the right color pantsuit, she is not going to be the fed-up heroine you’re projecting her to be. And she’s definitely never going to be a feminist icon.
2017 was a long, hard year in America. The combination of sheer incompetence and boorish disregard in our president has left many on the Left scrambling for any possible allies they can find. Much of the year’s op-ed content across major newspapers can be boiled down to, “You’re seeing this right?!” Over the course of the year, FBI agents, Republican senators, and even foreign despots have all been “welcomed to the resistance.”
Yet some of the strangest recruits to the imaginary flank of the resistance have been the women in Trump’s family.
A number of outlets have made a sport out of finding minor signals in Melania’s behavior that indicate that, in fact, she is bringing down the Trump White House from the inside. The most absurd of these was an essay, “The Quiet Radicalism of Melania Trump” published in the New York Times by first ladies historian Kate Anderson Bower. In the piece, Bower uses the argument that her “quiet antipathy” exhibited when Melania is “swatting her husband’s hand” or “tweeting a photo of herself…on the arm of a Marine” could add up to “doing more than any of her predecessors to upend our expectations of the slavish devotion a first lady must display toward her husband.”
Bower’s thesis might be the most generous one making the rounds, but she is not alone. When the first lady wore a white pantsuit to the State of the Union, some pundits interpreted this as a sign of quiet solidarity with various women’s movements. Again, at the Times, Katie Rogers wrote:
“Her suit was close to the white color and style chosen last year by women in the Democratic Party, who wore it in a salute to suffragists during Mr. Trump’s first speech to a joint session Congress. (It was also a color favored by his campaign opponent, Hillary Clinton, in public appearances.) More recently, musicians wore white roses to this year’s Grammys in a nod to the ‘Time’s Up’ movement, and others performed in white.”
It is possible, and even likely, that Melania doesn’t like her husband. Even if she does love the man, she is probably frustrated by the web of scandals surrounding him and the various allegations of infidelity and sexual harassment. But, before we project our collective disgust with Trump on onto Melania, we ought to demand some kind of concrete statements or actions that back up her feminism.
At the very least, we would expect her to be an advocate for working women. While Ivanka has paid lip service to the idea with her book Women Who Work and her failed maternity leave plans, Melania has been silent. We also expect her to be pro-choice—and she hasn’t spoken out against her husband’s draconian anti-abortion policies. We would expect a true feminist to speak out for women from oppressed communities, such as trans people or people of color. There is no record of that, outside of a tone-deaf Black History Month tweet. At the very least, as a starting point, we could expect that she speak generally on behalf of the power and potential of women. We haven’t seen that yet either. In short, feminism from Melania would involve in some way using her platform to lift up other women, perhaps at the risk of some of her personal comfort. And there are no examples of any of this.
When the @nytimes breaks the story that Trump really has been doing his damndest to obstruct justice, then pays someone to insist Melania may be the feminist heroine we need pic.twitter.com/tH6GkDLUhy— Milksteak&Jellybeans (@Tallulahs_Ghost) January 26, 2018
This points to a larger problem in the age of Donald Trump. It is well known that 52 percent of white women voted for the man who once bragged about grabbing women by the pussy. Women all over the country feel betrayed by that number and struggle to understand it. The unfortunate reality is that it isn’t that hard to understand on a basic human level. There are a percentage of women who materially benefit from the patriarchy and are perfectly content to reap those benefits in exchange for limiting the rights and opportunities of the women around them. While there may be something inspiring in Melania’s journey from Sevnica, Slovenia, to the White House, the rags to riches story only becomes feminist if she uses the riches to draw attention to the rags.
In supporting Donald, Melania is following in the paths of many women before her who have chosen to forgo solidarity in the interest of comfort—whether that is material comfort or the comfort of not having to confront your racism, classism, or other biases. Female televangelists have made a lot of money explaining why women should submit to their husbands. Political leader Phyllis Schlafly single-handedly made sure the Equal Rights Amendment wouldn’t pass. You don’t have to look far on the internet to find arguments in favor of the War on Drugs and “welfare queens”—and complete avoidance of the AIDS crisis—during First Lady Nancy Reagan’s time in office despite her so-called “feminist moments.”
In times like these, allies are valuable. But an ally needs to bring something to the table. There is plenty of common ground to be found between the radical feminism of Linda Sarsour and more pragmatic positions of Kirstin Gillibrand, if you’re looking for a hero. When you have to squint hard enough to read hand swats and wardrobe choices as feminist praxis, that’s probably not an ally worth our time.
Brenden Gallagher is a politics reporter and cultural commentator. His work has been published by Motherboard, Complex, and VH1. He’s the co-founder of Beer Money Films, an indie production company. Based in Los Angeles, he works in television drama as a writers assistant.