In sharp contrast to her husband’s transparent bombast, Melania Trump remains shrouded in mystery. A new fiction story in the New York Times Magazine paints her as obsessed with Michelle Obama, casually racist, and coming apart at the seams. Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote the story, “Janelle Asked to the Bedroom,” as a follow-up to “The Arrangements.” Both appeared in the same magazine. Also, rumors flew about whether she uses a body double. While people always harbor a special interest in presidents’ wives, Melania Trump holds a particular fascination. Here’s why we’re so obsessed with her.
7. America loves a good conspiracy theory
During a press event at a U.S. Secret Service training facility last week, President Donald Trump spoke to reporters with his wife. A man named Joe Vargas tweeted that the “Melania Trump” who appeared at the event appeared as an impostor. “To think they would go this far & try & make us think its her on TV is mind blowing. Makes me wonder what else is a lie,” he tweeted. Vox explains that Vargas’ theory grew legs very quickly.
Vargas refers to the Trump administration as “they.” That suggests a coordinated entity trying to trick the media and the American people. Conspiracy theorists operate under an “us and them” paradigm, often throwing the media into the middle. People like Vargas believe the government uses the media to trick the public. A body double plays right into that distrust.
In a climate in which so many Americans distrust the media, Vargas’ theory goes even further. It also reinforces the narrative surrounding Melania Trump herself.
6. We think we know so much about the Trumps’ marriage
“Since Donald Trump was elected, people have subscribed to the belief that … Melania Trump didn’t ever want to be first lady, and at worst openly loathes her husband,” Vox reports. “In a sense, it’s a different kind of conspiracy theory, one that someone could believe in while still scoffing at the idea that Melania employs a body double.”
First ladies have endured scrutiny since the presidency began, but Trump’s looks different. Jezebel gathers a series of videos as “evidence” that she actually “hates” her husband. A CNN commentary picks apart an incident in Rome, in which the first lady appeared to “swat” away the president’s hand.
“Arriving in Rome … President Donald Trump stood at the door of Air Force One and reached for first lady Melania Trump’s hand. She avoided his grasp, reaching up to brush her hair away from her eyes instead. He then appeared to put his hand — wait for it — on her behind,” the account reads. The internet blew up with the gesture. It came just days after Donald Trump walked ahead of his wife in an apparent power move. Why do we care so much? Melania Trump’s own media reticence gives us a clue.
5. Body language experts know why she acts how she does
British newspaper The Independent ran an article whose title said it all: “Melania Slaps President’s Hand Away to Say She Won’t Be Treated As a Child.” Body language expert Patti Wood said she believes the first lady sends a message. “He was walking way in front to show his power and putting his hand back to lead her,” she explained. “Her hand went under his and up and out to say ‘No, you can’t lead me like a child.’”
Wood explained that says more about him than her. Before the White House residency, their relationship appeared “high contact,” and “highly sexualized, with him touching intimate zones of her body in public freely and easily, typically as he smiled and even gloated.”
Over the past few months, Trump often walks out in front of his wife and leaves her behind. On the whole, he calls the shots when it comes to their public image. “She tries to hold his hand at times in an affectionate way, which makes me think that was their normal way of walking,” Wood said. “She is used to affection and often leans it to get it, but we see him turn away or smack her hand away in an admonishing way.”
The expert noted that Melania Trump’s body language changed after her husband took office. A former model, she previously appeared comfortable in her own skin. While never a smiley woman, she seemed content. Not anymore, The Independent notes. Wood pointed out that Trump has become someone “whose shoulders go down, whose mouth turns down, who gives furtive, down-gazing looks, and who is tense, tight, small, and unhappy.”
But is Trump as unhappy as she looks?
4. The nation finds a miserable Melania fascinating
Vox notes that the media paints women in Donald Trump’s life as voices he never listens to. A number of Saturday Night Live sketches depict adviser Kellyanne Conway, Ivanka Trump, and Melania Trump as innocents dragged into Donald’s media circus. While both Conway and Ivanka Trump found their own voices, Melania Trump did not.
“The ‘Melania’ theory is a natural extension of that,” Vox explains. “It paints Melania as either unwilling to be part of the administration or as someone who hates her husband so much that she’s found a body double to stand in as the first lady while she ostensibly does whatever else she’d rather be doing than representing the country.”
Much of the way the nation views Trump smacks of sexism.
3. Some say Trump’s former career makes her unfit
The Slovenian former model has taken on little modeling since she became a mom. That doesn’t stop her critics from lambasting her former career. According to ThinkProgress, a now-deleted meme circulated shortly before the inauguration featuring a lewd photo of Trump. It showed all of the living First Ladies — Michelle Obama, Laura Bush, Hillary Clinton, Barbara Bush, and Rosalyn Carter — at the dedication of the George W. Bush presidential library in 2013. Someone photoshopped Trump into it, oily, naked and grabbing her crotch.
“It [represents] classic slut-shaming, signaling that because she was once a professional model and posed for provocative photographs, she is not suited to be a prominent member of American politics,” ThinkProgress points out. “It’s a message that you’d expect to see feminists countering, not perpetuating.”
At the Women’s March, some marched carrying signs that read “Free Melania.” Rumors about why she really stayed in New York City continue to abound. So do whispers about her marriage. But all of that presents a damaging assertion, ThinkProgress points out.
“Painting Melania as helpless and in need of rescuing without any solid evidence is just as demeaning as labeling her a slut who doesn’t have enough class to live in the White House — it corners her in the Madonna-whore binary that has been used to discredit women for, well, forever.”
Now that she has served for nine months, criticisms of her ability to do so branched out beyond her physique. Donald Trump’s ex-wife Ivana Trump also got in on the fun, positioning herself as “the real first lady.”
2. Staying out of the spotlight has not helped her case
“Would I straighten up the White House in 14 days? Absolutely. Can I give the speech for 45 minutes without [a] teleprompter? Absolutely. Can I read a contract … negotiate … entertain? Absolutely,” Trump said, according to The Washington Post. By criticizing many of the duties of a first lady, Trump brought to light what many Americans already thought — that Melania Trump can’t handle the office.
Dario Fazzi, author of Eleanor Roosevelt and the Anti-Nuclear Movement, analyzed how Trump’s role contrasts former first ladies’ for The Washington Post.
“Melania’s social agenda largely adheres to the one set by her predecessors and hardly reflects any of her own concerns,” he explained. “Her involvement in humanitarian and social campaigns, such as the one against cyberbullying, is quite recent and covered with feigned enthusiasm.” He noted that, even when Trump tries to empathize with the American people, she comes off as disingenuous.
According to Kate Anderson Brower, author of First Women: The Grace and Power of America’s Modern First Ladies, much of Melania Trump’s mystique stems from spending little time campaigning. “The fact that she wasn’t on the campaign, it was detrimental to her, because every other modern first lady has been on the campaign trail and has had advisers and their own team,” Anderson Brower told ThinkProgress. “Your whole image is molded in the year and a half, two years on the campaign.”
That reticence means the American people feel free to make up details about Trump. But does she deserve that treatment?
1. Theories distract from Trump’s reality
While the public remains distracted by conspiracy theories and fictional accounts, Trump continues quietly working. Look a bit deeper, and she shows herself as less the victim than we want to believe. She often retweets Trump’s attacks, and dedicated herself to combating cyberbullying.
That looks ironic, given that she never disavowed and often participates in her husband’s tweet attacks. She took part in a radio interview with Trump and Howard Stern, playing right into what she calls “boy talk.” Even after more than 18 women came forward with sexual assault allegations, she stood by him.
“I know those people. They hook him on. They try to get from him some unappropriate [sic] and dirty language,” Melania told Fox News.
Far from living under her husband’s thumb, she made him come to her at the beginning of their courtship. Even today, she maintains her distance. “Nobody controls me. I travel with my husband when I can,” she told GQ last year. Her refusal to live in the White House does not prove their marriage’s failure. She keeps her own home instead as an assertion of her independence and a signal of her power.
When we look a little closer, Trump’s secrecy looks as intentional as her husband’s bluster. By giving us so little, she ensures we keep looking for more. Trump has the American public right where she wants us.
Follow The Cheat Sheet on Facebook!