Sympathy for the Melania

SNL and pop culture pay loving disrespect to Donald Trump’s wife.

Cecily Strong portrays Melania Trump on 'SNL'  (NBC)

As more women come forward with allegations of harassment against Donald Trump, more scrutiny is also being directed toward the women who are still standing with him. Female ally No. 1 is Trump’s wife, Melania, and even though she’s remained relatively quiet throughout the presidential campaign, her cultural footprint seems to be growing. The caricature that’s arisen is both empathetic and insulting, rooted in horror at what Trump represents but also in stereotypes about trophy wives and Eastern European women and beautiful people being vacant.

Melania has been among the more reserved political spouses in recent memory, making only sporadic campaign appearances with speeches notably lacking in specific details. Her most famous moment so far was plagiarizing Michelle Obama in her speech at the Republican National Convention—a gaffe that only accentuated the feeling of blankness at the heart of her image. And so the first round of satire directed at Melania was about this blankness, as with Laura Benanti’s impersonation on Colbert or Super Deluxe’s sublime stump-speech remix, which suggested she’s a robot or hypnosis victim.

The second kind of satire, though, has tried to go deeper, taking the blank slate and filling it with speculation about Melania’s inner life. The author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie‘s New York Times fiction piece about the Trump family took on this task. (“Donald admired in his daughter qualities he would not abide in a wife. Not that Melania minded, she told herself, watching them.”) So have Saturday Night Live’s recent portrayals.

In the NBC show’s ongoing Melania Moments segments, SNL imagines the potential next first lady as the subject of a new-agey VHS vignette, the kind of format that the show’s Jack Handey bits sent up in the ‘90s. This past weekend, Cecily Strong’s Melania gazed at her housemaid and imagined trading places with her, The Prince and the Pauper-style. “She thought, ‘I could go out into the world,’” the narrator said. “‘See a bus. See a hill. Or even feel the texture of sand. She’d stay here and lay under Donald. Not a fair trade, but oh how I’d love to touch sand.’”

The two previous Moments have also made Melania out to be a luxurious captive, isolated from the world, deeply and passively unhappy. In the first such skit, Melania looked down from the Trump Tower and wondered about the world below (“Is there a Sixth Avenue?”). In the second, she sensed her “replacement” being born in rural Latvia. “I must find this girl and vanish her to the woods, she thought to herself,” the narrator said. “Not for my sake, but for hers.”

SNL’s version of Melania also starred in this week’s Melanianade sketch, which reimagined Beyoncé’s “Sorry”—a kiss-off to a reckless husband—as coming from the women in Donald Trump’s life. In it, Melania, Ivanka, Tiffany, Kellyanne Conway, and Omarosa sang about being fed up: “Without us you wouldn’t be standing there / You’d just be that guy with the weird hair.” At one point, Melania took a baseball bat to a TV showing news about sexual-misconduct allegations against Donald. But at the end, Alec Baldwin’s Donald showed up and gave the women orders—and they obeyed. Melania’s rebellion was just a lark.

Real-life photo shoots of Melania forking up jewels as if they’re spaghetti, and quotes about striving to serve her husband without “nagging” him, have certainly contributed to this characterization. But the actual Melania probably deserves more credit for making her own choices. She’s often described the way she met Trump with an anecdote that emphasizes her agency: At a Fashion Week party in 1998, Donald reportedly asked for her number but she insisted that he be the one to give her his contact info. But a different origin story has been following her around, in which it’s falsely implied she was basically a mail-order bride. Here’s Strong’s Melania in an SNL sketch from a year ago: “I was in Slovenia and Donald saw a picture of me in magazine and he called me and he said, ‘Hey, come to America.’”

A fiction like that allows for an image of powerlessness, servitude, and pure transaction. SNL’s ongoing joke plays on both sides of the line between sympathy and mockery, expressing awareness of the underlying human being but also showing disdain rooted in the assumption she’s not in charge of her own life. It’s a projection resulting from being unable to believe that someone could happily stay married to someone like Donald Trump.

Which is understandable, given what’s transpired in this campaign. But this mix of sympathy and sneering also reflects, at base level, the culture war over gender roles. At a Tidal concert over the weekend, Nicki Minaj went on a riff about White House women, praising Hillary and Michelle Obama before saying, “You better pray to God you don’t get stuck with a motherfucking Melania. You niggas want brainless bitches? To stroke your motherfucking egos? Well, fuck you.” On Twitter, she later denied she’d been “dragging” Melania, writing “She seems nice. But a smart man knows he needs a certain ‘kind’ of woman when running for President/attempting greatness.” It’s hard still not to read that clarification as another diss against Melania—and moreover, against other women of her “kind.”