The New York Post has published nude photos of Melania Trump—and the nudity is not the issue.
The problem is that the tabloid, in its writing and framing of the photographs, has perpetuated a shameful history of using homophobia as a political attack.
“Here’s the nation’s would-be first lady — and right beside her, a second lady,” the article baits.
The publication frames the “lesbian-themed pics,” some of which originally appeared in the French magazine Max over two decades ago, as even more scandalous than its Sunday spread. In that feature, titled “The Ogle Office,” yesterday’s paper showcased Melania Trump naked but solo.
To wit, the Post categorizes the “raciest of the photos” as the shot featured on Monday’s cover page, which shows the wife of the Republican presidential candidate in bed alongside model Emma Eriksson.
The article does not let the image speak for itself but rather describes the pair in lascivious detail. Eriksson, “naked, embraces her from behind, just below her breasts, which are fully exposed.”
In another photograph, the author scrutinizes their clothing, cataloguing Eriksson’s “sheer stockings, a low-cut bustier, high heels, and a long robe — all designed by John Galliano,” while noting that “Melania is more conservatively dressed in a skin-tight gown and high heels.”
To drive home the tyranny of the male gaze, the article quotes the French photographer Jarl Ale de Basseville. “I always loved women together, because I have been with a lot of women who desired the ménage à trois,” he said, omitting the existence of women who would only be attracted to one another, without the help of a male third party.
Donald Trump, for his part, downplayed the photographs, which he described as “very fashionable and common” in Europe — a comment on nudity in photography but also perhaps of its homosexual themes.
Their impact on conservative voters remains to be seen. But the intent is also in question. The Post is owned by conservative media modul Rupert Murdoch. Considering this link, Gawker speculated that the leak was intentional, in order to distract from Trump’s controversial criticism of a grieving Muslim woman whose son, U.S. Army Captain Humayun Khan, died in Iraq.
The use of “lesbian-themed” news to either discredit a person or distract from other issues is a tale as old as time. The Miss America pageant infamously made Vanessa Williams step down as its first African-American winner after Penthouse published photos taken two years earlier of the beauty queen posing nude with another woman. “I am not a lesbian and I am not a slut, and somehow I am going to make people believe me,” Williams told People in response.
These attacks are common for many women in power — although in the absence of nude photographs, they are more coded. Hillary Clinton, the Democratic presidential nominee, has fielded homophobic attacks throughout her political career. Trump himself has attempted to discredit her by implying she might be in a relationship with one of her aides, Huma Abedin. He also frequently criticizes her pantsuits — a popular target for both liberal and conservative media. Earlier this year, Slate published an article with the unfortunate title “Hillary Clinton Isn’t a Lesbian, But She Dresses Like One.”
Clinton isn’t alone. After a political opponent spread lesbian rumors about Janet Reno, U.S. attorney general in Bill Clinton's adminstration, she was forced to address them in an interview with People. “I am just an awkward old maid with a very great attraction to men,” said Reno, who dared to be a single woman in the political world.
Similarly, Gloria O’Dell, a divorced candidate who ran U.S. senator from Kansas in 1992, was forced to “proclaim her heterosexuality” after opponents held signs at rallies printed with “Bull Dyke O’Dell.” She lost to Republican incumbent Bob Dole.
Instances of this horrific homophobic history are catalogued in Beyond the Double Bind: Women and Leadership by Kathleen Hall Jamieson. The book best sums up this toxic atmosphere with a quotation from a defender of Anita Hill, the attorney who once accused her former employer, Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas, of sexual harassment.
“If you are a single woman in a political environment, your sexual behavior will be subject to review,” the source said. “You will either be promiscuous or you’ll be a lesbian. Those are the choices, you know. Women who run for office, whatever they are, in subtle or unsubtle ways get attacked. If they are married it is how strong is their marriage, or if they are divorced, who created the divorce?”
Melania Trump may not be running for office. But her husband’s bid for president has made her a candidate for first lady, as well as a target for the sexist and homophobic attacks that come with such a spotlight.