However we feel about Melania as a person, disliking someone does not make them deserving of possible domestic abuse.
I didn’t know that ‘Free Melania’ was a thing until the Women’s March. Walking toward Constitution Avenue at the end of the day, I saw the words scrawled on more than a few signs. One poster was drawing a strong reaction from marchers nearby, so I pressed through the crowd to see what it was.
“Hey Melania,” someone read aloud, “Blink twice if you want us to save you.” Several people erupted with laughter. “That’s so good! Damn, that’s good!”
My stomach turned. Wasn’t this a march about women’s health and safety? Why were people using domestic abuse as a punchline?
Since Inauguration Day, several thinkpieces have made the rounds in response to Melania’s questionable treatment and apparent displeasure. Her husband carelessly left her at the bottom of the steps while he greeted the Obamas. During their dance to “My Way,” Melania looked visibly uneasy, angling her body and face away from her husband on several occasions. Interpreting the expressions and body language of Eastern European Melania can be difficult through an American lens, so a few experts have stepped in to help.
But regardless of what is or isn’t going on behind the Trumps’ closed doors, multiple columnists have determined that Melania is unworthy of our concern.
There is plenty to dislike about Melania Trump, mostly relating to her support of her husband’s hateful policy platforms. But however we feel about Melania as a person, disliking someone does not make them deserving of possible domestic abuse.
Think of it this way: If you suspected that a friend or family member were in an abusive relationship, is this what you would say?
If she were unhappy, she wouldn’t defend him.
According to Jezebel’s Stassa Edwards, who recently criticized sympathy for Melania, the First Lady “[has] proven that she’s a willing scribe of the Trump hagiography…she is neither a victim nor is she lacking agency.” Feminists, myself included, generally go out of our way to fight to give women agency – after all, everything from print advertisements to rape narratives attack our agency on a daily basis.
However, Edwards fails to acknowledge that the concept of agency becomes extremely blurred in an abusive relationship. Victims neglect their own needs and interests to ‘fix’ an abusive partner and walk on eggshells to avoid the next explosion.
Victims protect their abusers – sometimes at the expense of their own abused children – out of shame and self-loathing, but also as a means of adapting. This tendency speaks to the larger issue of internalized misogyny, or learned hatred of other women, that was a factor in driving 53 percent of white women to cast their votes for Trump.
“White women’s modus operandi for gaining power — economic, political, and otherwise — is simple: acquire power from those who have it. And those who have historically had it are white men,” Marcie Bianco wrote in a provocative post-election Quartz piece. “This has resulted in white women’s historic abandonment of their black and brown sisters, as well as their more heinous adoption of white supremacist rhetoric to advance their own status.”
Melania could very well be drawn to her husband’s power and authority as a way to distance herself from her young immigrant past – and the women who serve as reminders of it. We have no way of knowing whether or not she really supports her husband’s positions. We also don’t know what it would cost her to leave her marriage, as abusers often exert a significant amount of financial, physical and legal control over their victims.
She knew what she was getting into.
“No, I wouldn’t free Melania,” wrote Skylar Baker-Jordan for The Independent. “This is a woman who knew what she was getting into when she married the tangerine tyrant.”
Donald Trump’s blatant misogyny isn’t anything new. In 1994, he told ABC’s Nancy Collins that “when I come home and dinner’s not ready, I go through the roof,” noting that he didn’t like ex-wife Marla Maples working outside the home when it interfered with his routine. And before Marla there was Ivana, who alleged in a divorce deposition that Donald Trump violently grabbed her by the hair and raped her.
Any woman with a reasonable amount of intelligence and self-worth would run as fast as she could from a documented abuser, right? Not necessarily.
According to a May 2016 New Yorker profile detailing how Melania first met her now-husband, “Donald saw Melania, Donald asked Melania for her number, but Donald had arrived with another woman…so Melania refused. Donald persisted. Soon, they were falling in love.” Narcissists like Trump naturally rail against boundaries, so it comes as no surprise that Donald aggressively pursued Melania after her initial rejection. Furthermore, abusive men enjoy putting their victims on a pedestal before tearing them down. Prior history with women aside, Donald likely went out of his way to woo Melania into believing she would be treated differently.
She doesn’t deserve sympathy.
Many of the articles referenced above argue that public concern for Melania is sexist because it erases her agency, making her “the sad and sleepy heroine of a decidedly modern fairy tale.” The Atlantic’s Megan Garber wrote that “#FreeMelania carries shades of…yet another Strong Female Lead who is cajoled into—rather than, as may well be the case, perfectly content with—her own complacent silence.”
I would argue that this version of Melania — the complicit wife who supports her husband’s evildoings – is just as harmful. By painting her as the scheming Claire to Trump’s Frank Underwood we are once again shifting the burden of an abusive man’s bad behavior to his partner.
They may be the President and First Lady of the United States, but beneath those roles, Donald and Melania Trump are two people in a marriage. We can merely speculate about their relationship, but I’d bet that any man who would gaslight the entire country would treat his wife as a less-than-equal partner.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.
Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons