A few hours after the inauguration of President Donald Trump, a photograph circulated of Melania Trump sitting next to husband at a luncheon, eyes down and face unsmiling. The photograph went viral, often accompanied on social media with the expression, “I feel sorry for Melania Trump.”
It was just one of many pieces of evidence that Melania Trump deserves sympathy; that she is unhappy, that her husband treats her poorly or, more hopefully, that she hates her husband. In addition to the photograph, other evidence was offered: a video of the couple dancing at the inaugural ball and a side-by-side comparison of former President Obama accompanying Michelle during the 2009 White House transition. Obama is thoughtful, he waits for Michelle before he walks up the steps of their new home to greet then-President George W. Bush. In contrast, Donald Trump greets the Obamas without his wife and she hurries to make her way up the stairs alone, accompanied into the house by the Obamas who are more considerate—more respectful—than her own husband.
The images, particularly the comparison to President Obama, reinforce a narrative that is easy enough to believe (likely because it’s true): that Obama is a better man than Trump and thus treats women accordingly. The Obamas, in turn, express their sympathy for Melania, a poor woman married to a tyrant, by showing their graciousness, a hallmark of the Obama White House, actions that speak volumes about their humanity and morality. Here, Melania is a victim of her husband’s brutishness; she is passive and silent, has no political opinions but instead is a sort of tabula rasa for America’s women, on which her treatment is proof of President Trump’s innate misogyny. President Trump’s casual misuse of his wife is a domestic tragedy with national implications. But that narrative only works if, in fact, you believe that Melania is a blank slate or, at least, a woman simply acted on rather than a woman actively collaborating with her husband’s ideologies.
If the past is any indication, Melania is no passive victim. Recently a 2011 interview with Melania on the Joy Behar Show went viral on Twitter. In the interview, Melania defends her husband’s adamant commitment to the birther conspiracy born of the Tea Party—his belief that President Obama is not an American citizen, that he was born in Kenya and that his Hawaii-issued birth certificate was, in fact, a forgery. “Do you want to see President Obama’s birth certificate or not?” Melania asks Behar. “I’ve seen it,” Behar responds. “It’s not a birth certificate,” Melania says as she shakes her head. Here, Melania recites her husband’s conspiratorial and fictitious claims, ones Donald Trump repeated for five years until, in September 2016, he “conceded” that they were untrue. Melania has never indicated whether or not she agrees with that concession.
But Melania has always been willing to defend her husband and to employ tactics that typify the Trump approach to the world. After journalist Julia Ioffe published a profile of Melania in GQ, Melania denounced the piece, calling it “yet another example of the dishonest media and their disingenuous reporting.” When Ioffe received a barrage of anti-Semitic messages and threats, Melania said, that Ioffe “provoked them.” Later, Melania almost trollishly announced that, as First Lady, she would launch a campaign to prevent bullying on the internet, denouncing social media’s “mean and rough” culture.
Social media aside, she’s proven that she’s a willing scribe of the Trump hagiography. In October, Melania sat down with CNN to defend her husband after a leaked tape caught her husband bragging about sexually assaulting women. She called his language “boy talk” and blamed the tape’s release on the conspiratorial “left-wing media.” When asked about the sizable number of women who have accused her husband of sexual assault, she demonstrated that she was no listless vessel, but in full possession of autonomy: “I know he respects women but he is defending himself because they are all lies,” she told CNN.
Like Ivanka Trump, whose brand and subsequent media narratives have worked to distance her from her father’s repugnant ideologies from racist birtherism to sexual assault, Melania is no innocent. She’s willing to vocally defend her husband—not only to stand next to him for the sake of political spectacle or personal gain, but to do the obligatory media tours and, like her step-daughter, insist that he respects women.
Melania Trump is hardly a stand-in for American women, she is neither a victim nor is she lacking agency. Rather she’s an active participant working to construct Donald Trump’s narrative, readily available to put a gauzy domestic veil on his racism and misogyny. Melania Trump doesn’t deserve your sympathy.