Did you see the gif? The one that features Melania Trump, the newly installed first lady of the United States, radiantly smiling as her husband gazes upon her … and then, as he turns away, allowing the grin to melt into a frown? Grin-grimace, grin-grimace, grin-grimace, looping into eternity.
Call it a Kinsley gif: The image seemed to reveal, in its frozen fluidity, an unspoken truth—about Melania, about her marriage, about all of us. During a time of Much News, it quickly became conversation fodder. Slate offered “A Detailed Forensic Analysis of Melania Trump’s Creepy, Devastating Inauguration Smile/Frown.” Jezebel shared it with the sardonic declaration that “Melania Trump Definitely Loves Her Husband and Is Very Happy to Be Here.” New York magazine did a fact-check of the video the gif came from to assure us, finally, that “That Awkward Clip of Donald and Melania at the Inauguration Is Definitely Real.” (Snopes agreed, but warned that the video is inconclusive when it comes to its ability to reveal Melania’s emotions.) #FreeMelania trended.
And not just online. The gif went viral during the same time that found Trump’s inauguration, his first actions as president, and the Women’s March on Washington forcefully colliding within the space of a weekend; during that last event, many marchers used their protest real estate—the signs they thrust in the air, to be photographed and otherwise shared—to offer messages like “MELANIA: BLINK TWICE IF YOU NEED HELP” and, more plainly and more plaintively, “FREE MELANIA.”
This professed sympathy for Melania Knauss Trump—the projecting, the concern-trolling, the presidential fan-fiction-ing—is part of a long-standing narrative in pop culture: the cheeky but also insistent assumption that the new first lady is the sad and sleepy heroine of a decidedly modern fairy tale. Saturday Night Live, in its several parodies of Mrs. Trump during the campaign, portrayed her as a Rapunzel figure, her body and her dreams trapped within her gilded tower, her hair never quite long enough to allow her to reach the ground and its freedoms. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert painted a similar picture, tapping the Broadway star Laura Benanti to portray Melania as maybe-or-maybe-not-sending-‘HELP ME’-messages-in-Morse-code. Super Deluxe’s stump-speech remix, my colleague Spencer Kornhaber noted, painted Melania as alternately “a robot or hypnosis victim.”
Blink if you need help @MELANIATRUMP— Chelsea Handler (@chelseahandler) January 25, 2017
Everyone was wondering what was in the Tiffany box that Melania handed Michelle Obama... We were hoping it was this👇🏽👇🏽😂😂😂 pic.twitter.com/dcoG4Ub2US— RogelioGarcia Lawyer (@LawyerRogelio) January 22, 2017
The portrayals, as Kornhaber also pointed out, tend to mix sympathy and irony, and in nearly equal measure: They assume a rich interior life for Melania Trump, and they profess to care about that life—but much of their concern becomes a punchline. Not about Melania, but about the marriage in which she is “trapped.”
The “poor little rich girl” treatments in that sense do indeed engage in a kind of concern-trolling. Yet they are also decidedly feminist in their tone. The jokes pivot on the idea that Melania Trump is miserable and cornered, and therefore pitiable, in part because the alternative requires imagining a woman who is happy with her husband—that is, a woman who refuses to be as offended as they are at “grab them by the pussy” and “such a nasty woman” and “Miss Piggy.” The alternative requires seeing her as a woman who tolerates such talk, and who Stands By Her Man in the fullest, Wynettiest sense—a woman who has, according to the mandates of choice feminism, made a choice, even if it chafes uncomfortably against the ideals of progressive feminism more broadly.
So, via the assumptions of #FreeMelania, a wealthy and quintessentially 21st-century woman—a woman who was once photographed twirling jeweled necklaces as if they were glistening strands of spaghetti—gets filtered as a Romantic and proto-feminist heroine: She feels, so much, and is punished for it. #FreeMelania carries shades of Emma Bovary, and Anna Karenina, and Lily Bart, and Edna Pontellier: Here is yet another Strong Female Lead who is cajoled into—rather than, as may well be the case, perfectly content with—her own complacent silence. The hashtag and its related ideas convert sympathy into a self-fulfilling prophecy: What better proof that Melania is a victim, after all, than all those women carrying “MELANIA, BLINK IF YOU NEED OUR HELP” signs?
What #FreeMelania ignores, of course, are the first lady’s several public defenses of her husband: the fact that she joined him, in 2011, in his birtherism; that she dismissed the contents of the Access Hollywood tape as “boy talk”; that she once boasted that “I’m not a nagging wife.” Coercion can take many shapes, to be sure; the Late Show’s treatment of Melania, for one, suggested that she was the victim not just of her marriage, but of a kind of matrimonial Stockholm Syndrome. To assume her victimhood, though—and to offer, even jokingly, to rescue her from it—is also to ignore the fact that Melania told Anderson Cooper, in a damage-control interview she did with him just after the Access Hollywood tapes became public: “People, they don’t really know me, people think and talk about me, like, ‘Oh, Melania, oh, poor Melania.’ Don’t feel sorry for me.”
While the woman born Melanija Knavs has thus far been, as have several of the political wives in whose footsteps she follows, something of a reluctant public figure, when she has used her voice in public, she has used it to support—indeed, to echo—her husband. The course of true feminism never did run smooth. As Lindsay Zoladz wrote in The Ringer, in October:
We do not want to deny Melania agency by presuming she is solely the one-dimensionally loyal, beautiful wife of a rich man — or by presuming that she must conform to a role that she never signed up for. But we are denying her agency if we fail to note how little she has done with every opportunity to complicate our picture of her, or how she has showed her support and idle complicity in the rise of a candidate whose administration would make daily life worse for women, and whose campaign already has.
Or, as Stassa Edwards put it in Jezebel, earlier this week: Melania “doesn’t deserve your sympathy.” On the contrary, Edwards wrote: The new First Lady has been “an active participant working to construct Donald Trump’s narrative.”
It’s an awkward juxtaposition: Melania, in full control of herself and her situation, engaged in helping her husband come to power. Yet it’s one that also acknowledges Melania as a 21st-century woman, who makes her own decisions and lives with their consequences. It’s the reality Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie was hinting at, in her magisterial and extremely sympathetic fictionalization of Melania’s story, “The Arrangements.” Adichie imagined Trump’s third wife as a modern-day Clarissa Dalloway: Sphinxian on the surface, perhaps, but in the true style of Virginia Woolf, bursting with intelligence and light and heat just below the pliant surface. But: content. Adichie’s fictional Melania is in general perfectly satisfied with the life that choice and fortune have bestowed upon her; she appreciates “the magnanimous ease of it all.”
The only thing Adichie’s fan-fictionalized Melania fears? Her husband becoming president. “She sagged suddenly with terror,” Adichie writes, “imagining what would happen if Donald actually won. Everything would change. Her contentment would crack into pieces.”
So perhaps that was the expression that melted Melania’s radiant smile in the moments after her husband became president. Perhaps, in that second, she confronted her future: a future that will scrutinize her actions, a future that she helped to create, a future that will find people offering, kindly and sarcastically, to save her from herself. “You could interpret that look a lot of ways, to be honest,” Slate wrote of that image of Americans’ new first lady, smilefrowning her way into infinity. It acknowledged that caveat, however, only after declaring the gif to offer, to the waiting world, “a split-second glimpse of Melania’s inner turmoil.”