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SHAH: First Lady Melania Trump is not your 'damsel in distress'

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Among many of the hashtags that President Donald J. Trump’s administration has started is one of questionable legitimacy: #FreeMelania. Somehow, within the midst of the Women’s March, a movement to empower women, many progressive men and women chose to use the "powerless" First Lady Melania Trump as a rallying cry. Journalists feel compelled to hyper-analyze all of her body movements and slightest facial expressions to diagnose her with Stockholm Syndrome. There is an overwhelming urge to believe that the first lady is suffering, held prisoner by her husband. For years, the first lady has been reaping the benefits of her marriage to a real estate mogul and celebrity. Yet, we still insist she is a victim even when she has explicitly commanded people to not feel sorry for her. Why are we making excuses for a woman who has never shown sympathy to those her husband has torn down? 

During the State of the Union, the first lady's fashion choice — an all-white Dior pantsuit — has been commended by some as a symbolic gesture of sorts, one in which she has reclaimed “suffragette white” to make a statement against her husband. While she has chosen to remain fairly quiet and private as first lady, every word that has come out of her mouth regarding her husband has been supportive: she has admonished less fortunate immigrants for failing to follow the rules, she has backed her husband’s illogical "birther movement," she labeled her husband’s braggadocio regarding sexually assaulting a married woman as "boy talk" and a talking point of hers is that she is “not a nagging wife.” Still, her relative silence has allowed hopeful progressives to put words into her mouth and repaint all of her actions as silent resistance. 

A fashion choice accompanied by no action is hardly a political statement at all. Her white pantsuit is fashionable, yes, but calling it an act of rebellion sure sets the bar low for activism. It delegitimizes everyday women who use their voices against injustice, regardless of the consequences they must face. While the first lady has recently redacted much of her public presence with the president due to wildly public news about his affair with Stormy Daniels, former pornography star, the pity we have for her because of her husband’s infidelity must not lend itself to the complete erasure of the first lady's otherwise supportive behavior. We cannot justify absolving her from her complicity simply because of pity or perhaps imagined “quiet radicalism.” 

It may be comforting to think that the first lady is simply held captive by her husband — that she does not support her husband’s "locker room talk" or his flagrant attacks against women and immigrants alike. The more painful truth is realizing that there is a woman of most probable free will who loves and supports a man who has targeted and disrespected two important facets of her identity, even if her name was not explicitly included in the attack. 

At a certain point, the question becomes: Do we somehow pity her immigrant status and subsequent “broken” English? And does that pity sometimes translate into victimhood, as if her immigrant-woman status makes her powerless to the whims of the white Christian man, who is, in this case, her husband and our president? Like the first lady, Ivanka Trump is a woman, but Ivanka Trump speaks and looks, for all intents and purposes, classically all-American. Almost universally, Ivanka Trump is considered complicit in her father’s schemes and has been condemned because of her willingness to participate in her father’s administration. But, somehow the first lady is robbed of her agency by liberal outsiders who so desperately wish to believe that this woman is unaware of her power and position. It is entirely possible she is in an unhappy marriage that has become much more humiliating as Trump’s expensive affair has come to light, but it is unfair for us to create a fictionalized narrative of what we want the women in Trump’s life to be. 

We cannot transform the first lady into our damsel-in-distress heroine for our own “feminist” causes. Evidently, she is a woman who has okayed her husband’s previous anti-women actions. She serves as a protective front for her husband who has continually mistreated women but still has a wife who seems to be forgiving of his vulgarity and remains happily married to him, thereby absolving him of even greater public scrutiny. 

There is no justice in holding the first lady accountable for her husband’s behavior, just like it is unfair to attack former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton because of former President Bill Clinton’s sexual impropriety. But there is no reason to create a victim of the first lady, who is a sane woman with agency. Melania Trump knows her husband better than we do. And she seems to be okay with what she has learned about him over the course of their 13-year marriage. It is not unfeminist to question her allegiance and equate her complacent silence as complicity if there is no evidence proving otherwise. It is simply holding our first family to an understandably high standard. 

Anjali Shah is a Rutgers Business School first-year, double majoring in finance and political science. Her column, “Wait, Was That Racist?”, runs on alternate Fridays.

The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 149th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.

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