Many stories about Melania Trump use her to understand her husband, to laugh at his taste and recoil at his sexism. A Washington Post story this week, for example, suggested that despite Donald Trump’s decades of bragging about his success with women, he may not have had as much sex as he’d like us to believe.
But there’s little written about what it’s like to be one of Donald’s women. It’s not polite to ask. It’s generally assumed there’s not a lot going on in their heads. But that’s a mistake. It’s worth spending some time considering what it’s like to be those women—to actually be Melania—and in turn to use them to think about Hillary Clinton. They represent the two paths available to any young woman: the life of the body and the life of the mind.
Current feminist theory, at least the kind to be found on the internet, holds that one must not criticize the choices of a member of the sisterhood. Of all the feminist principles, choice is the most important. If you choose not to choose choice, that’s your choice, no judgement, you have chosen well because you chose the right choice for you—that’s empowerment!
But seriously thinking about the results of Melania’s choices—whether they’re described in magazine profiles or explained by the Trumps themselves—is like watching a horror movie. It’s like Saw IV. Mom always said, “Don’t just be a pretty face.” This is the dark twisted nightmare of what happens if you don’t follow mother’s advice. You live life as a surface that another person uses to project his virility. You become a prisoner behind your own face. Your husband publicly says he wouldn’t divorce you if you were in a disfiguring car crash as long as your tits survived.
The splashiest Melania profiles in recent weeks were by Lauren Collins for The New Yorker and Julia Ioffe for GQ. (The number-one rule for an editor assigning a Melania story is to send a female journalist to do it, because otherwise merely stating the facts of her life could be read as sexist.) But there have been many others, from the Associated Press and Bloomberg and The Washington Post and elsewhere, because the Trumps have sprinkled the facts of their lives across multiple platforms over the last ten years. The most shocking things the Trumps say in these stories were actually already said to friendly journalists or Howard Stern.
It might seem unlikely, but there’s a certain Tracy Flick-ishness to Melania. She reportedly has shown great discipline and determination since she was a child. Her childhood friend told the Associated Press that Melania was “an excellent student, very organized, disciplined, with very decent manners.” She cared more about school than modeling. Her high school classmate told GQ: “Even in summertime, she was always perfect, every day.” Her roommate from her Paris modeling years told People, “I remember we used to run up and down the stairs because we had eaten too much ice cream. … We had to run up and down to burn all the calories. She was always very disciplined.” In her relationship to Donald Trump, Melania has demonstrated the ultimate message discipline: She has never farted in his presence.
We learn in the Melania profiles that she never, not even in her peak days as a model, partied all night. The New Yorker described her as “a model with the past of a nun.” A model friend from the 1990s told The Washington Post that Melania was a “homebody” who skipped the party scene. The Slovenian photographer who discovered her told GQ, “She kept to herself, she was a loner. After a shoot or a catwalk, she went home, not out. She didn’t want to waste time partying.” Ioffe writes, “In New York, Melania lived a quiet, homebound life, taking assiduous care of her body: walks with ankle weights, seven pieces of fruit every day, diligently moisturizing her skin.”
These stories expose the cruel paradox of hotness. Hotness is a ticket to fun, an express pass that cuts through long lines to the best parties and the coolest scenes and the most thrilling artificial rushes of adrenaline and dopamine. But to use the ticket is to diminish it. Every fun night out—every cigarette, cocktail, sleepless night, cheeseburger, coke bump, sun tan, ice cream, euphoric amphetamine, hour of makeup worn past 10 p.m.—makes you a little less hot.
What is even the point of being hot if you can’t have fun with it? It is a horrific Sisyphean existence to eat leaves and seeds every day only to… eat more leaves and more seeds for more days. We are meant to envy Melania’s existence—luxury, little work, no economic anxiety, no dark moments contemplating thigh fat. But has Melania Trump ever had any fun? All that work to look 43 when you’re 46.
There is more photographic evidence of Hillary Clinton dancing in a clurb than there is of Melania Trump.
Many speculate Melania has had plastic surgery, which she denies. This is because in most pictures, she has the same frozen face, an open-mouthed squint. But the truth, I think, is that having been a model, Melania knows the tricks that are instinctive to a younger generation. The art of the selfie is learned through trial and error. If you want to make your neck fat look slimmer, take a photo from above. If you want to make your dick look bigger, take a photo from below. If you want to look like you don’t have wrinkles, don’t smile too wide. Instead, hold your mouth open, your jaw slack, to stretch out the skin a little—but don’t forget to squint your eyes, because otherwise a slack jaw signals brain damage. As you age, the prison of beauty becomes only more restrictive. A wider range of emotions makes you look old.
One of the best things about a presidential election is that you can use it to talk about everything but politics—professional wrestling, the 1980s, Baby Boomers’ psychological anguish over skipping out on Vietnam, being an intern in an homemade skirt, etc. There are always scolds who lament the coverage of campaign “distractions,” but not only are these people grumps, they’re also in denial, because if you read even a little bit about social choice theory, it’s clear that elections have only the most tenuous ties to the will of the people. Elections are narratives about our elite celebrity leaders, and we use them to explain how regular people actually live.
Almost every young woman has, at some point, contemplated a life like Melania’s, in which your body is your ticket to status. The fashionable position on any kind of financial compensation for your bod, which I’ve heard expressed by many sex positive feminist friends at urban brunches, is, “I would do it. I would totally do it.” This is a lie. If they would do it they would be doing it, or have done it. But they don’t want to do it. Because it’s awful. Melania has ostentatiously, even trollishly, posed as a trophy wife, handcuffed on a jet or stretched across a piano. It’s an ad for Donald Trump’s life, I guess? But for Melania, it seems like it sucks.
Yes, Melania tells us a lot about Donald Trump, who apparently wants a spouse who will not challenge him in any way. But Melania’s life is more fascinating in an election year in which we’ll likely have the first female presidential nominee. Hillary Clinton is of the generation of feminists who challenged the idea that Melania’s life was a woman’s greatest possible achievement.
The most famously Tracy Flick-ish woman in America is Hillary, who like Melania has shown a single-minded discipline and superhuman levels of delayed gratification—every action in service of an ultimate ambition. There are countless examples, but to pick just one: Of course she sought a seat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, which helped counter the perception that women aren’t tough enough to go to war and the association of the Clinton name with dopey hippies protesting Vietnam. Her blind quest for mainstream approval is the theme of the popular “Bernie or Hillary?” meme, in which the candidates weigh in on a cultural issue, with Bernie Sanders picking the cool alt thing and Clinton being lame or mass markety. (On a Star Wars version of the meme, Bernie favors the original trilogy while Hillary thinks Jar Jar Binks is great.) But for Hillary, at least there’s some kind of payoff at the end. In Hillary vs. Melania, Melania wins the marshmallow test, because she will never ever eat it.
So you can take the path of Melania, in which people are pretty nice to you but they also pity you because they assume you’re stupid and a fool, or you can take the path of Hillary, in which people are often hostile and suggest you really do something about those hips, but you’re able to smile in pictures because it’s ok to show you have wrinkles. And certain publications will post the most unflattering photos of you no matter what, but that’s fine, because you’ll have something to talk about at dinner parties, and also something to eat.