“Free Melania!” was one of the first signs I saw, standing in Grosvenor Square at the start of the Women’s March on Saturday. We laughed. We thought someone was trying to be funny – and they were.
But then, on Sunday, I was having lunch with friends and friends of friends. One woman said to me, “Oh, I feel really sorry for Melania,” and she meant it.
Over the weekend, people were quick to point out that, during the inauguration, Trump was void of any manners and Melania was left trailing behind, guided by the Obamas. The internet has pointed out her expressions: cold, sad, distant. During the ceremony, a BBC commentator seemingly couldn’t help but comment that Melania looked terrified. But what was she so terrified of? The crowd? The historical significance? Her husband? (This last suggestion is obviously wildly unfounded, but I have a feeling the Trump administration doesn’t care much for substantiated claims.)
An immigrant woman is married to Trump. No wonder we're all busy gawping at her
Born Melanija Knavs, she is routinely mocked for nude photo shoots, for posing on a fake Air Force One with a gun and aviators and not much else, and for a fashion line sold on QVC. But, for every ridicule, there is also a chorus of women (typically) defending her decisions: why shouldn’t she? Why are we so judgemental? How can we be so unsisterly? For everyone who says, “She married Donald Trump” as a defence of their criticism, there is a voice that says it with sympathy, as if she’s been kidnapped against her will (“Blink twice if you need help” joked the internet and many banners at the march). She toes the party line at all times, says what she needs to, when she needs to. Even after the pussy-grabbing tapes, Melania was put in front of a camera, saying her husband was a “good man”. How, we wonder. Why?
And now, with Michelle Obama finally no longer around to steal the limelight, be it with her natural ease, the amazing work she did during her time at the White House, her passionate defence of women’s rights or her gift as an orator and communicator, Melania seems to be more in our sights, the subject of our conversations in the pub or in the office. She is the First Lady, after all, and, perhaps more fascinatingly, she is married to a man who women around the world perceive as a threat to their freedom. She is championed by the same woman who called Michelle Obama “an ape in heels”. That woman said Melania was “beautiful" and "dignified”. Perhaps not beautiful or dignified enough, however, for the fashion world. She wore American giant Ralph Lauren on Friday, but not out of choice. Her options, it appears, were limited.
That fact that racists celebrate Melania obviously doesn’t make Melania a racist. After all, I’m not sure if Trump – or his supporters – are aware, but he’s married to an immigrant, so maybe Melania knows exactly how it feels to be living in a rhetoric of fascism dressed up as patriotism? Trump’s office said Kanye wasn't “traditionally American” enough to play at the inauguration. By that standard, is Melania traditionally American enough to be the First Lady? An immigrant woman is married to Trump. No wonder we're all busy gawping at her.
But we’re pretty good at judging women by association, particularly in terms of the men in their life. Hillary Clinton spent most of her campaign fighting Trump on two fronts – the “lock her up” front and the “her husband had an affair and is a rapist” front. More widely, we’re spectacular at judging women by their appearance, and their appearance alone. And, in this way, Melania really played the game. But we also love nothing more than to debase those women who might well have thought they were doing exactly what society wanted them to do. We judge Melania on all fronts: her modelling career, her husband, her nationality. We mock and undermine. And, in doing so, we're far closer to Trump than we would care to admit.
But I have one problem with the Melania sympathy train that’s gathering momentum right now and it’s a fairly large one. God knows I wouldn’t want to be married to Donald Trump and, for that reason alone, I take a breath and count my blessings, and wonder what her life is like, and I hope it’s not as bad as we presume. But this is not the woman we have to worry about.
We have to worry about the women who depend on Planned Parenthood for safe abortions and cancer-screening tests. I wonder about all the women who rely on the Affordable Care Act to keep themselves and their children healthy. I worry about Muslim women and Mexican women who are living in a country with a government elected on the promise of their expulsion, a government that has brandished them rapists and terrorists and job-stealers. I worry about women who live in the country that’s been given a green card to grope strangers on the street. I am far, far more worried about them than Melania Trump, wife of a billionaire and the 45th president of the United States.
To me, Melania has become the face of the 53 per cent of women who voted for Trump. Ivanka (often mentioned in the same breath or even the same banner) is another story. Whereas Melania's silence suggests she is controlled, Ivanka’s influential husband pulling Trump’s strings and her white power suit suggest quite the opposite. Melania’s inauguration Jackie O tribute played to a traditional, supportive, silent image of a spouse, not an ambitious power player. And, while Ivanka seems to be riding the wave of her father's success, his wife seems to be carefully treading water. We watch her in fascination: why? How? Just like we do all the other woman who voted for Trump.
But sympathy? Real concern? Heartfelt worry? We have to save that for women who don’t live in the most powerful house in the world. And that New York other home – "Barron needs to go to school" – story? Maybe Melania has found a way to free herself, after all.