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The Meaning of Melania


If you're waiting for the first lady to blink twice for help, don't hold your breath.

"Melania, blink twice if you need help," read several signs from the women's marches that took place across the country on Saturday. A day earlier, a video of Melania Trump's face falling after speaking to her husband at the inauguration went viral, and the #FreeMelania hashtag took off on Twitter. Some tweets compared her to a prisoner, and others saw three-second clips of her body language as a sign of an abusive relationship. While a few tweets seemed well-meaning (if exceedingly condescending), others seemed to revel in the idea of trouble in the Trump marriage. There's a fantasy behind #FreeMelania: What if she really did blink twice? What if she left her husband and joined us?

I can list a series of facts about Melania Trump. She was raised in an apartment block in the sleepy riverside town of Sevnica, Slovenia, when the country was still part of Yugoslavia. Her father managed a car dealership, and her mother was a pattern maker at a textile factory. She is the second foreign-born first lady of the United States, following Louisa Adams in 1825. She is the first to be raised in a communist country and to be a non-native English speaker. She speaks six languages: English, Italian, German, French, Serbo-Croatian, and her native Slovene. She studied architecture and design at University of Ljubljana but dropped out after a year to pursue her career. She modeled in Milan and Paris before relocating to New York in 1996. Friends from this period describe her as sweet and reserved -- the opposite of a party girl -- and say she never had boyfriends. She met Donald Trump in 1998 and they married in 2005.

These facts reveal little about who she is beneath the surface. Stuck, I text my sister, "What do you think of Melania Trump?" She replies, "I don't know whether to hate her of feel bad for her." It's a common answer from the progressive women I pestered while trying to figure out Melania. Those who have decided whether they pity or hate her stand firmly by their opinions. At best, they paint her as a pawn. At worst, she becomes a shrewder Eva Braun.

There are, of course, other views on the first lady. One of Trump's supporters tweeted a photo of Melania in her baby blue Ralph Lauren inauguration dress beside what he thought was a photo of Jackie Kennedy (but was actually a photo of Katie Holmes portraying the former first lady), with the not so subtle caption, "Beauty is finally restored to the White House." This mirrors how Melania once envisioned her role as first lady. "I would be very traditional like Betty Ford or Jackie Kennedy," she told The New York Times in 1999 when Trump was running as a Reform Party candidate.

To the 53 percent of white women who voted for Donald Trump, his wife may represent their American dream. In their eyes, she is a traditional, classy woman who leveraged her beauty into a relationship that took her from Sevnica to the White House. Sure, she had to stand by her man through a little extramarital pussy-grabbing scandal, but for endless vacations at Mar-a-Lago and the ear of the president, it's a small price to pay.

None of these visions of the first lady seem complicated enough to be true. When it comes to Melania Trump, we fill in the blanks with our own experiences and beliefs. A pussycat-bow blouse becomes a secret code, a sign of resistance. A Saturday Night Live sketch imagines her as a put-upon diva in a parody of Beyonce's "Sorry." A faltering smile becomes a cry for help. We see whatever we're looking for.

I try Googling her favorite things. I search for Melania Trump's favorite music. I search for her favorite books. I come up empty and try something simpler: her favorite color. Two of her tweets come up -- one is a picture of red lipstick and nail polish, and the other is promoting her QVC jewelry collection with the caption "Gold is one of my favorite colors. It's classic & timeless... Tune in at 5 PM." I find out, like most human beings, she loves chocolate and ice cream but eats both in moderation. I find out that the one thing she couldn't live without on a desert island is her vitamins. No, really. Vitamins. The most scandalous things about her are that naked GQ photo shoot, a secret half-brother, and her plagiarized Republican National Convention speech, but regarding the first two, who doesn't have a few nude photos or a little family drama?

How does this carefree Melania who loves chocolate and vitamins compare to the Melania who is supposedly imprisoned by her husband? How does that helpless Melania compare to the Melania we watched sitting calmly across from Anderson Cooper, politely smiling as she tells him the leaked Access Hollywood tapes were just "boys' talk," her posture perfect, and her hands folded neatly in her lap?

Throughout the CNN interview, she echoes her husband's ideas about dishonest media and a rigged election. In another interview, with MSNBC's Mika Brzezinski, she defends her husband's birther claims about President Obama, his derogatory comments about Mexicans, and his proposed ban on Muslims. "What he said is it would be temporary, and it's not for all the Muslims," she says confidently, as if we should be comforted.

Maybe Melania Trump really is as sad as the meme suggests, but after watching hours of stoic interviews dating back to her days as a newlywed, I find it equally possible that's just her face. There is a moment in the CNN interview where Melania tells Cooper, "My husband is real. He's raw. He tells it as it is. He's kind. He's a gentleman. He supports everybody. He supports women. He encourages them to go to the highest level, to achieve the dream." If she is acting in this moment, her pride in her husband is convincing. She genuinely seems to believe what she's saying, and why shouldn't she? The girl from a communist Yugoslavia apartment block grew up to be one election away from becoming first lady of the United States. She might feel like she has gone to the highest level and achieved the dream.

Later in the interview she tells Cooper, "I'm very strong. People don't really know me. People think and talk about me like, 'Oh, Melania, oh, poor Melania.' Don't feel sorry for me. I can handle everything." If we choose to take women at their word, to assume they are smart enough to make their own decisions, then that must include Melania Trump. Rather than focusing on freeing a woman who has never so much as blinked at her husband's hateful rhetoric and oppressive policies, we might want to focus on our own liberation, because it's sure to be tested in the coming years.

CASSIE SHEETS is a Philadelphia-based writer.

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