Privacy may be a fuzzy word in a marriage, but few will deny how crucial it is in a coupledom of mutual respect. The photograph that went viral on election day in the US was of Donald Trump—now president-elect—peeking into his wife Melania’s ballot. That image certainly doesn’t say much about Trump’s trust in his wife’s vote. It could be an unfortunate giveaway into what they share (or don’t), but it tells us more about Trump than Melania. He is after all the man who has led Melania to the doorstep of the White House and to one of the most enviable wifely roles of once upon a time.
Once-upon-a-time, however, lapsed a while ago. Wifehood, even in the White House, is no longer restricted to pink frilly curtains, hot scones and comforting tea served in beautiful white cups with rosettes on them. Walk-in closets, sleek coats and sleeker stilettos, fine furs, diamond rings, emerald bracelets and scented apartments do lend a luxurious look, but they no longer contribute to a resumé worth recalling. You are expected to grow beyond the surname. Especially if you are the wife of a man who matters. And if you are FLOTUS, you are expected to do your utmost to nurture the surname as well as grow beyond it. Like a rose, but not a painted one on a bone-china cup. That walk-in closet, those glittering dresses made by the world’s best fashion designers, need to be worn well, but what must be worn even better is your sense of self.
For Slovenia-born Melania, the third wife of Trump and the second model to become the US’ First Lady (Betty Ford was a model too), this jangle between who she is and what her husband stands for may be a rose bush with some thorns.
“Donald Trump will be our next president. That is a huge insult to the women of this country.” That line strapped a piece by Cosmopolitan writer Jill Filipovic after Trump’s victory left much of the world in shock on Wednesday. Many such sentences of contempt and condescension that surrounded Trump’s win also greet Melania by extension, as she prepares to fill the rather tall shoes of Michelle Obama.
It is hard to envy Melania. Her husband, the president elect of the world’s most divided democracy, is a man who has publicly insulted women, been labelled a misogynist in all shades of black available to writers of all colours. A man who joked about his daughter Ivanka’s sex appeal; a man who unsubtly talked about “grab(bing) them by the p****”, who thanked his stardom for enabling his unwelcome advances on women.
If Hillary Clinton was once chided by feminists across the world for letting them down and standing by a man who had been unfaithful to her, what should be said about Melania? Trump is the poster boy of modern misogyny. She is his wife. What a surname to have. Trump. Standing stoically by his side cannot simply be read as wifely valour.
If the election of Donald Trump is “a tragedy for the American republic”, as The New Yorker put it, the vault of a former model from another country to the position of First Lady is an event of deep satire as well as perhaps great triumph in the usually mocked yet envied narrative of modern WAGs. Among wives and girlfriends of the world, Melania is indeed First Lady.
Yet, it is difficult to admire her at the moment. Even though we owe her, as Hillary Clinton put it in the case of Donald Trump, “an open mind”. Ridiculing this pretty, tall blonde for her husband’s repugnant anti-women, racist and disrespectful rhetoric is unfair. But it may not be entirely against the rules of this game. Melania was accused of plagiarizing a Michelle Obama speech in July. And instead of taking a tougher stand on her husband’s vulgar comments about women, she brushed them off as “boy talk”.
Melania’s photographs beam out a discreet, mild-mannered, smiling, impeccably dressed woman who knows exactly which colour of hair and shade of nude suits her. A woman who loves white—she wore a white one-shoulder jumpsuit by Ralph Lauren for her husband’s victory speech. But just as he perfunctorily kissed her without any lingering non-verbal communication and moved on to hug and kiss others with the same dispassion after his speech, the cameras too found it easy to pan away from her. Melania doesn’t hold your gaze because she doesn’t, yet, seem to hold great promise. At the moment, she is like a pretty trophy in a cluttered drawing room noticeable even at Christmas time.
It is Christmas for Melania Trump.
New Year is not far away. Traditionally, that’s the time to make new resolutions, reflect, write a bold script for a new day. Will Melania do that?
Until she becomes her own person, I hope designers don’t get “inspired” too quickly by her for their collections. I am also curious to see if American fashion designers and the Hollywood celebrity fraternity, who unequivocally supported Hillary Clinton and expressed grievous defeat upon Trump’s victory will, in the future, rustle up obligatory gush around Melania. If the American Vogue features her on its cover, will it just be a rosy fashion story or a probing interview? If a section of America is as determined as it asserts to be today about not allowing Trump’s divisive ways to influence it, Melania too may have to pay the price and be kept off America’s most stylish lists. Anything else would be a blow to liberal American style.