The latest round of first lady fervor revolved around the administration’s inaugural state dinner, and it started with her hat. From there, the compliments multiplied. Her gown was glorious, her menu high-minded and, in a video that went viral, her refusal to hold her husband’s hand a symbol of rebellion. At least, that’s what her admirers had to say about it: The reaction provoked a split along the left side of the spectrum, with skeptics imploring progressives to stop glorifying presidential co-conspirators for meaningless gestures of independence.
Progressives have long projected our own assessments of President Trump onto anyone on the right who displays the slightest sign of dissent. But in Melania Trump’s case, the compulsion has an added dimension. Two narratives compete for our approval: In one, she is a prisoner in her own home, full of hate for her husband but powerless to do anything about it. In another, she’s still a prisoner — but she’s carrying out her own little “Shawshank Redemption,” getting the better of the commander in chief from the inside.
It’s no wonder, as Donald Trump’s tenure drags on, that we’re drawn more and more to the second narrative. Eager not to appear as if Trump has beaten us down, we want Melania Trump to display defiance along with us. Besides, we derive extra enjoyment from imagining the utter emasculation of a president whose own wife is scoffing at him behind the scenes. And because viewing her as a damsel in well-dressed distress stinks of sexism, looking at her as an undercover ally to the anti-Trump camp seems the preferred alternative, especially now that liberals have abandoned hope that Ivanka Trump would serve as their agent.
But Melania Trump’s mutiny in miniature, the way we conceive of it, is just that: miniature. The belief in a feminist Melania stems from a traditional understanding of how a lady — and, in particular, a first lady — should act. We may spin a story of Melania Trump as empowered, but in that tale she wields her power with womanly subtlety. Her supposed weapons of insurgency are hand-holding snubs (this isn’t the first time), unshared rides, torpedoed trips and cryptic tweets.
If these signs of marital discontent came from a man, few would notice at all, much less treat them as daring displays of defiance. But because they come from a woman, they have turned into just that. We don’t seem to expect Melania to actually do anything to counter her husband, like publicly oppose his policies or politics, or renounce her role in the birther crusade against Barack Obama, or — the seemingly unthinkable — divorce him.
All this is motivated by a familiar stereotype: As much as we want Melania to be a rebel, we want her to be the right kind. And that’s not only because she’s female, and because we’ve been trained to view women as more circumspect and less brash. It’s because, when it comes down to it, she’s in the East Wing representing our country, and a first lady is nothing if not ladylike. If we were really so ready to discard the conventional conception of the role as outmoded and misogynistic nonsense, we wouldn’t be gushing over her in haute couture Chanel, or even marveling at the opulence of the state dinner she planned in the first place.
Barbara Bush’s death last week prompted a public outpouring of nostalgia for the Washington that once was. A photo of former presidents and first ladies gathered at her funeral reminded Americans of the days when they could actually respect the people in the White House, and though Donald Trump picked a golf game over the occasion, some remarked on how elegant Melania looked in the frame. If only she weren’t married to Trump, they murmured. But at the end of the day, despite everyone’s wishful thinking, she is.