Melania Trump: The First Lady as Courtesan, Troll, or Radical?

A friend recently remarked that she finds Melania Trump’s style old-fashioned. I disagreed. Yes, Melania references earlier first ladies with her fashion choices—most famously Jackie Kennedy, in her powder-blue Ralph Lauren at the inauguration—but citing earlier archetypes can be progressive, even radical, if done the right way. Still, her comment got me thinking, and I realized that there is one time-honored archetype Melania fulfills, through dress and behavior, above all others. She is the first among first ladies to embrace the centuries-old archetype of the courtesan.

Let me be clear about what I am saying. I am not calling Melania a whore. I don’t think “whore” is necessarily an insult, and when used to denote a sex worker, it’s a statement of fact. But the fact is, Melanie is not a sex worker. I would never even call her a gold digger. While it’s hard to imagine a woman marrying Donald Trump for anything but his money—she certainly doesn’t do it for the conversation or proximity to orthographic acumen—the truth is that we don’t know why she did it. Nor is it any of our business.

In any case, what I mean here by the term “courtesan” has nothing to do with sex. In graduate school I studied demimonde literature, specifically that of Japan, which has a robust tradition of plays, stories, novels, poems, and essays (not to mention non-literary art) about geisha and their kin. The courtesan in demimonde literature functions as a gateway to a specific space: one of license, beauty, and careful orchestration. No gesture or word is left to chance within her sphere. Wildness and control are cultivated side by side, as if erotic encounters were ikebana displays. While the courtesan may be highly sensual, she embodies something disembodied as well—the power of suggestion. She is fantasy in female form.

Recently, Melania disappeared for weeks, shortly after the flawless execution of her first state dinner. Few things could have been more courtesan-like—both the expert entertainment and the vanishing. She delivered a perfect evening and left everyone wanting more. Liane de Pougy and Cléo de Mérode, two of the most glittering courtesans of the Belle Époque, would have been envious.

We don’t know much about Mrs. Trump. In fact, she seems determined to remain unknowable, to dodge and confound. Still, let’s consider what we do know. She has spirit. In June, when Rudolph Giuliani trumpeted that Melania didn’t believe the claims made by Stormy Daniels, the first lady’s communications director clarified that there was no way he could claim that, having never spoken with the first lady about this (or any other) subject. We know that she has a sense of humor, at least when in the company of witty men like Barack Obama. We know she has some integrity, calling out her husband’s policy of snatching children from their parents at the border. She even appears to troll Donald on this and other issues. After she had spoken out against his policy, how else were we supposed to interpret the now-infamous message on her jacket, except as a dig? And we know that she values her privacy. Even her fashion choices speak to this, as she armors herself with coats and thick belts, a lexicon of fashion-as-self-defense reminiscent of Cersei Lannister’s thick robes and metal waist corsets.

This aversion to public exposure may seem strange, given that she was once a model. But exposure in carefully composed and Photoshopped images is very different from exposure in real life. You can control the conditions under which you model: who you pose for, to some extent what you show. You can’t control what is seen and shown if you are one of the most scrutinized people in the world, your every move tallied and interpreted.

So perhaps Melania tries to hide. But in hiding she still conveys meaning, willingly or not. She becomes the obscured woman, the mystery. And mystery almost always invites desire and speculation. In her case there is a double obscuring: Melania is unknowable to us, but you get the sense that even her husband doesn’t know her. Her glamorously narrowed eyes are the pinhole through which we can glimpse her camera obscura, but nothing more. Still, are we viewing the image upside down?

If anything, it may be the more traditional role of first lady—the helpmate who is constantly at her husband’s side or off performing the official duties he doesn’t deign to do—that has a scent of courtesanry about it. That isn’t a bad thing, up to a point. But perhaps Melania is ushering in a new era, in which a wife is not defined by her husband’s job, status, affairs, or other misbehaviors. In the past, we have seen too many first ladies criticized for their husband’s peccadilloes. Melania, however, is never blamed for Donald’s bad conduct. Part of that is no doubt due to our Trump-gonna-Trump resignation. (Who could stop him from doing what he wants?) But it’s progress since the Bill Clinton era nonetheless.

Beyond this moral separation between her and her husband, Melania refuses to go along with what is expected of her, excusing herself from the public eye when she feels the need to do so, whether for the sake of herself or her son. And while I prefer to think the message on her jacket, which understandably infuriated many people, was a jab at her husband’s cruelty, I don’t know for sure. If it was an ill-timed announcement of disinterest in the plight of others, maybe even this gesture could be considered radical, if a little sad. First ladies are expected to care; anything else, up until this point, has been unimaginable. Maybe Melania doesn’t want to play the role of nurturer either.

Still, in this rejection of a role forced upon her, Melania Trump may be a surprising feminist, but I will argue that she is one. This is not to say that other first ladies weren’t; the United States has been blessed with many strong first ladies, from Eleanor Roosevelt to Michelle. Melania’s resistance is of a more subtle tint but may turn out to be no less monumental. At a moment when we are being stripped of our privacy with ever greater impunity, her insistence on privacy cannot help but frustrate and fascinate. Yet perhaps it can teach us all valuable lessons about the preservation of the self in an age of exhibition and instability. In this way, and like many great courtesans from history and literature, she references a more genteel past while hinting toward an unknowable and troubling future.

Copyright © Cynthia Gralla, 2018