Imagining the First Lady in hiding, or plotting her escape, allows us to ignore the uncomfortable truthby Sian Norris / June 7, 2018 / Leave a comment
Rumours about Melania’s absence are a type of comforting storytelling. Photo: Prospect composite You’d have to have been on… well, wherever Melania Trump’s been, not to have noticed the First Lady hasn’t been seen for a while. Nearly a month after going into hospital for emergency kidney surgery, she finally made an appearance yesterday at an event closed to the press. During her absence from the spotlight, sources told the Hollywood Reporter they hadn’t heard from Melania since she went to hospital. Her absence, and her husband’s odd response to it, quickly sparked a wildfire of conspiracy theories across the internet. Suspicions were raised even further when Melania apparently tweeted she was fine and in the White House. The language in the tweet, however, didn’t read like Melania. https://twitter.com/FLOTUS/status/1001912411933364224 Could it be that The Donald logged into her account to tell the world how the media was “working overtime” in speculating about Melania’s whereabouts? Memes popped up across Twitter and beyond, as people tried to guess what Melania was really up to. From having a girls night with Samantha Bee—as suggested by Guardian journalist Hannah Jane Parkinson—to being a Russian spy, no one was short of theories. Someone even suggested Melania was a cover identity for everyone’s favourite mysterious criminal mastermind: Carmen Sandiego. https://twitter.com/JonRisinger/status/1003662723979231232 It didn’t help when Trump told a bemused press corps visiting the White House that she was “looking at us, right there,” gesturing to an empty window. Was Melania a… ghost? Had she escaped down the sinkhole that opened up on the White House lawn? This isn’t the first time theories about Melania have swirled around the internet. At the Inauguration, footage of her looking heartbroken caused intense speculation on her true feelings about the marriage and Presidency. Her prolonged stay in New York last year led to suggestions she didn’t want to live with her husband. There were jokes that her Inauguration gift to Obama was a note reading “help me.” What underpins this obsession with Melania’s story? Why are so many people engaging in conspiracy theories that—more often than not—end in her avenging herself with a glorious escape from her marriage? It partly springs from the way Melania functions as a First Lady. Unlike Michelle Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton, Melania Trump has not got involved in politics. The perfect trophy wife, she is a blank slate on which to project our own fantasies. For Trump’s supporters in the American Right, that fantasy is of the obedient, passive wife who stands by her husband’s side. Meanwhile, Trump’s opponents build narratives where Melania is the victim, Melania is the underdog—even where Melania is the rom-com character. Let’s take that first trope, which began with her fearful face at the Inauguration and led to journalist Laurie Penny calling Melania “America’s First Victim.” Seeing Melania as a victim satisfies something we think we know about Donald Trump: that he’s a misogynistic bully who demeans his wife. Of course, Melania deserves our sympathy as a result. But there’s something interesting in our desperation to paint a specific meaning to her fallen face; our creation of the ‘help me’ note. Portraying Melania as a victim satisfies a need to have our suspicions about Trump confirmed. We want him to be the abusive husband, because it gives us another reason to hate him. Making her the victim also lets Melania off the hook when it comes to her complicity with Trump over, for example, his birther conspiracy. The perfect victim can’t be complicit, and if she’s wholly victim then that makes Trump wholly villain. This once again provides satisfaction, proving what we think about him. Melania The Victim segues nicely into the Melania The Underdog. In the conspiracy theories, Melania is the bullied wife quietly plotting her escape. Whether through a sinkhole in the White House lawn or doing a runner from the plastic surgery clinic, we take delight in the idea that—far from being the submissive wife Trump imagines—she is going to take down the bully, go out into the world and live her best life. (Even if that best life is kicking back and complaining about her former step-daughter with Samantha Bee.) But there’s more going on here, and it again relates to how we feel about Donald Trump. Whether he bullies his wife or not, Trump is our villain. He’s also very proud. The fantasy that he could be outsmarted and humiliated by his First Victim is tempting. We want to see him fall, and Melania is the perfect weapon to achieve this. Happy endings are always satisfying. They provide a sense of completion and a sense of justice. The good win, the bad fall, and our need to give Melania a happy ending is matched by our greedy desire to give Trump a bad one. But this comes with its own problems. Because in creating these stories and narratives, we are using Melania Trump as a tool to embarrass her husband, just as he uses her as a tool to prop up his alpha male status. Conspiracy theories often disguise a reality that is far worse than the version of events they propose, and this is no different. Melania Trump is not a tool. She’s not a trope, or a blank slate to project our underdog and revenge fantasies on. She’s an actual human woman, married to an adulterous bully with a history of abusing women. The truth about where Melania really is feels far worse than our wildest conspiracy theories can imagine.