Though I have lived most of my life completely oblivious to Melania Trump’s existence, I have been anxiously keeping tabs on media headlines about her since Donald Trump embarked on his journey to conquer the White House. Melania comes from a certain background, one that overshadows her personality: that of a Slavic, eastern European woman. Despite the age gap and completely different life trajectories, Melania and I were born in the same country — Yugoslavia. If I were to leave my desk in Croatia’s capital Zagreb, right now, after an hour’s drive I’d be in her hometown of Sevnica in Slovenia.
A common linguistic or geographical heritage don’t make two people kin, and I would be the first to disapprove of (some of) Melania’s life choices. There is nothing inherently empowering in being somebody's wife. All the more so when that somebody is Donald Trump, and when you defend his stance on immigration and women’s rights.
But Melania isn’t only a wife. As an immigrant, former model and parvenu in the American jet set, she is caught in a web of stereotypes and cultural misconceptions that exist in the west about eastern Europeans.
Coming from the presumed “desolate setting” of post-communism, often the product of an unprivileged background and facing grim economic prospects in their home countries, eastern European women are usually seen as particularly docile and submissive in the eyes of Western men. Besides that, eastern European girls still have the reputation of going weak at their knees for western men.
Of course, it is not only eastern European women who face such stereotypes. Anti-eastern European prejudice is a tricky concept to prove and delimit. Is it when you mock your neighbour’s heavy Russian accent in English? Is it when you claim these damn Poles stole your jobs whilst simultaneously maintaining that they’re lazy? Is it when you don’t bother to learn the names of any country east of Germany, presuming it to be “former Soviet”? One common denominator however is the tendency to characterise eastern Europeans as less educated, lacking style or grace, labelling the men as brutish and aggressive and the women as mindless dolls.
Remember how, despite her avoiding the limelight on the campaign trail, Melania’s first public speech at the Republican National Convention turned out to be a complete fiasco? That happened, of course, because huge chunks of her speech were plagiarised, lifted from Michelle Obama’s convention speech. Scorn and the mockery followed, and the Washington Post ran an article that linked Melania’s plagiarism to “the culture of cheating in eastern European schools”.
According to the article, Melania’s penchant for plagiarism could easily be explained by the shortcomings of a flawed communist-era educational system. During communist times, children were encouraged to memorise rather than to think for themselves. This myth has been debunked since, in an open letter by a number of scholars to the Balkanist, and by Polish author Agata Pyzik in Jacobin.
Truth be told, most of the media know better by now than to blatantly insult Melania’s origins. When model Gigi Hadid did her Melania impression — ducking her lips and mocking Melania’s eastern European accent — much of the media condemned her performance, calling it racist: actually a pleasant surprise.
Yet many articles describe Melania only as dull and uncharismatic: some still talk about her as if she were a doll (in one New Yorker article she’s “the perfect body on which to hang a brand”); many question her intelligence, and flirt with the term “trophy wife”. And though her being a woman and an immigrant should yield some sympathies from liberals, their silence was deafening when she got slut shamed (by Ted Cruz supporters mostly) for posing naked.
The most sympathy she gets in the media is when she is represented as a victim of her husband. Yes, the new president of the United States is sexist and condescending to women, but two wrongs don’t make a right, and depicting Melania as a submissive tool in his hands is plain wrong.
To wit: everyone has apparently written off the possibility of Melania doing anything important as First Lady. Ivanka Trump — a high-achiever, opinionated and outspoken — has already secured the title of First Daughter. If Melania had the same background as Ivanka, would media expectations of her be any different? I’d say so.
Melania will never become Ivanka. Having stood next to her husband throughout the campaign, it is highly improbable that she’ll “turn against him” and become the iconic woman we’d all like to see as First Lady of the States. And unfortunately, nothing suggests that she might use her new influence to address the problem of stereotypes about eastern European women. But however she behaves, I hope she’s judged by her actions alone, not her husband’s, and not on the basis of deeply embedded cultural stereotypes.