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Slut-Shaming Melania Trump Is Not The Answer To Your Anger

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Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP/REX/Shutterstock.
In the aftermath of the evening of November 9, 2016, many of us processed our grief in different ways. Some of us cried. Some of us screamed. Some of us holed up in our bedrooms, watching 30 Rock and drinking Jameson for hours on end, trying to shut out the chilly waves of despair and fear slowly washing over us. And some of us took to Twitter to malign and shame our First Lady-elect, Melania Trump.
Melania, 46, has been an object of scorn among many Hillary Clinton supporters for quite some time. Earlier this year, for instance, the women’s website Jezebel referred to Melania as “so studiously proud, vapid, and absent that she resists close analysis,” while The Washington Post derisively referred to her as a “professional pretty person.” Ostensibly liberal people on Twitter have been even more brutal, excoriating Melania by calling her a slut, a bimbo, and a “dumb cunt.”

Never mind the fact that Melania was a successful fashion model long before she married Donald Trump, or that she speaks four languages, or that she’s an entrepreneur who hawks (admittedly very ugly) jewellery on QVC. The overwhelming consensus among Clinton supporters has been that she’s little more than a high-cheekboned Eastern European former bottle girl who struck gold in the rich-white-husband lottery, who made her way up in the world simply by opening her legs for a guy with the right amount of $100s in his wallet.

Such slut-shaming reached a fever pitch when Melania's husband was actually elected president, with many headlines expressing utter incredulity that a mere trophy wife could ever hold the office of First Lady. Even relatively innocuous pieces like this USA Today story feel the need to point out that she will become the first First Lady whom we have all seen naked — a lurid piece of trivia, to be sure, but hardly a reflection on Melania’s morals, or what kind of First Lady she will be.

The widespread loathing of Melania doesn’t appear to stem from the nature of her actual transgressions, such as her plagiarism of an historic Michelle Obama speech and her controversial comments about not wanting her husband to “change the diapers or put [son] Barron to bed.” It largely derives from the fact that she posed nude for a few photos earlier in her career, a fact that briefly made headlines last August when the New York Post published a series of vaguely titillating topless pics from a 1996 issue of the now-defunct men’s magazine Max.

With the ubiquity of internet porn, underboob-baring red carpet trends, and celebrities like Miley Cyrus publicly advocating to #FreeTheNipple, one would think that it wouldn’t be such a big deal in 2016 for a prominent figure to have taken a few harmless softcore photos, especially considering they were taken nearly 20 years ago — at a time when Melania hadn’t yet met her husband, and, you know, Titanic hadn’t even been released yet.

One would think that. And yet, one would be wrong. Apparently, even in 2016, once we have seen a woman naked, she is deemed unintelligent, amoral, and, worst of all, “unclassy" — qualities that we view as incompatible with the position of the First Lady.
The trouble with this reasoning isn’t just that it’s misogynistic and offensive. It reflects a shockingly retrograde attitude toward what it means to be a female role model, and when it is and isn’t acceptable for women to outwardly own their sexuality.

It’s true that, as many pundits have been quick to point out, Melania will become the first First Lady (that we know of!) to have posed for nude photos. Yet, by suggesting this makes her fundamentally unfit for the office, or even that it makes her less fit than someone like, say, Michelle Obama, we are implying that it’s impossible for a woman to serve as a role model if the general public has seen her nipples.

Under most circumstances, this is an argument that most sex-positive feminists would find completely intolerable. For instance, 30 years ago, Vanessa Williams was stripped of her Miss America crown for having posed in a few softcore photos in Penthouse; today, we view the pageant’s treatment of her with shame, as indicated by the fact that Miss America CEO Sam Haskell publicly apologised to her during last year’s pageant. In the instances when nude photos of a woman have been published without her consent, the public backlash against her shamers is even more intense. Few people would’ve dared to publicly say that Jennifer Lawrence or Kate Upton were “unclassy” or bad role models when their nude photos were released by hackers in 2014; instead, they were (correctly) met with a wave of public sympathy for having had their privacy violated so egregiously.

It’s tempting to argue that, because she is about to be the First Lady of the United States of America, Melania Trump is held to a higher standard than a Jennifer Lawrence or a Kate Upton, and is thus under more intense pressure to present herself with a certain level of decorum. Yet the First Lady is not an elected position, nor is it one that comes with any measurable amount of public responsibility. While Melania Trump will undeniably be a role model for millions of young women, one thing she does not have is an obligation to have a political agenda of any kind.
But even if we do feel that Melania Trump, as First Lady, will have a responsibility to be a public role model; even if we find that her assets pale in comparison to the poise and mental acuity of a Michelle Obama, the question remains: Does the fact that Melania showed her breasts in a magazine render her incapable of assuming that role?

The results of this election have been devastating for many Americans. The fact that a hotheaded, inexperienced celebrity like Donald Trump has been elected President over a woman with 35 years of public service under her belt is nothing short of a travesty. But Melania Trump is not her husband, nor does she necessarily share his views; throughout his campaign, she has made a concentrated effort to avoid articulating political views of any kind, which is totally fine, because she has no obligation to do so. And she certainly has no obligation to apologise for or be ashamed of taking nude photos, something that she did more than 20 years ago as part of her job (and something that an estimated nine out of 10 American women have done in their private lives, according to a 2014 Cosmo survey).

The headlines are right: Melania Trump will undeniably be a “very different” First Lady than her predecessor, but for reasons other than the ones people are highlighting. She will be a different First Lady from Michelle Obama because she is a different person than Michelle Obama, with different priorities and interests and desires — not because she is somehow less “classy” than Michelle Obama for having posed for a softcore photo shoot in the ‘90s.

If we continue to propagate the idea that Melania Trump is as unfit to be First Lady as her husband is unfit to be President, we will continue to buy into the very dangerous idea that a woman who openly displays her sexuality is not a woman to be taken seriously. And not only is that wrong and counter to the progressive ideals we hold close to our hearts, but it also says far more about us and our views toward women than it does about the Trumps.
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