Is first lady Melania Trump an ascendant power player, cunningly latching herself to a rich businessman, a professional model now improbably occupying one of the most visible and influential female roles in the world? Or is she a victim of a conniving and manipulative husband, now trapped by her public role, a wounded bird confined in a gilded cage?
For many feminists and commentators, the answer is the latter. The #FreeMelania hashtag has proliferated on social media and appeared on signs at the Women's March, fueled by a GIF of an inauguration moment where Mr. Trump turns to look at his wife and she plasters on a wide grin, only to let it drop and her expression turn dark as soon as he looks away. Perhaps, many now speculate, Melania is an abuse victim. “Melania, are you OK?” asks one headline, before the writer argues that “there are some clear signs of emotional abuse we need to address.”
There is indeed reason to believe that Donald Trump is manipulative and abusive to women. He has bragged about sexual assault in his infamous “grab them by the pussy” comment. His first wife, Ivana, said he raped her, an allegation he denied and she later took back in negotiations over their divorce settlement. The reason the #FreeMelania hashtag has spread so quickly is that the idea Trump bullies and manipulates his wife—the definition of emotional abuse—seems obvious, given that he bullies and manipulates almost everyone else around him, from journalists to critics on Twitter to opponents real and perceived.
But if Melania is a victim, a cheeky hashtag belittles her situation. And considering that we don’t actually know she’s a victim at all, positioning her as a hapless pawn rather than an adult woman is deeply condescending.
It is notoriously difficult for abuse victims to leave their abusers. But life, and human beings, are complicated, and there’s something infantilizing about the suggestion that Melania is totally powerless and must only be with Trump because he has manipulated, conned, or terrorized her into staying. There's also something irresponsible about publicly tagging someone as an abuse victim without their consent—defining them based on an experience you aren't even sure they're having. Melania met Trump in the first place because she was a beautiful model hobnobbing with some of New York’s richest and most elite. Trump, as we have seen, is not particularly skilled at hiding his true colors. He is rude, sexist, and boorish, and his racism is long-standing and well documented: He notoriously paid $85,000 to take out full-page ads in several New York newspapers calling for the execution of five young black men accused of raping and nearly killing a woman in Central Park; the men, who were teenagers at the time, were eventually exonerated, but Trump refuses to recognize their innocence, despite it being proven in a court of law. He took that ad out in 1989, years before he met Melania. While they were dating, Trump made repeated lewd and sexist comments about women on the Howard Stern Show, and Melania even went on the show with him early in their relationship. It’s hard to argue she couldn’t have known she was getting involved with a racist, sexist misogynist, or that his propensity for racist, sexist bullying crept in slowly or was sprung on her after she was already in too deep.
Another option, then, is that Melania knew who Trump was and either didn’t find it objectionable or believed there were other benefits she got from the relationship that counterbalanced his awfulness. Women, like men, are capable of being misogynist, racist, and entirely self-interested. History is littered with women who enabled and supported terrible men; were women offered more social, cultural, and political power, more of them no doubt would also populate the ranks of people who have done terrible acts. The assumption that Melania is a victim seems premised on the assumption that women (or, at least, women who look and present like Melania) are unlikely to be as craven as the men with whom they choose to partner.
Melania is also an adult women currently in a position of great power and influence—not as great as her husband, to be sure, but powerful and influential nonetheless. With that power comes responsibility. Melania is not responsible for her husband's bad policies or his bad acts. But when she goes on television and casts her husband as a naughty little boy instead of an adult man responsible for his own actions, as she did in an interview after the "pussy grab" tape came out, she is covering for his alleged abuse of other women and his misogyny. When she defends his own admissions of sexual assault as simple "locker room talk," she undermines the potential for justice for women who have courageously spoken out. She herself is an immigrant, in a moment her husband is brutally barring refugees and many others from entering the country, splitting up families, leaving vulnerable people in dire circumstances, and reneging on a foundational promise of our country to be a haven for those who seek safety and shelter.
Her relationship with her husband complicates matters. But if we agree that women are capable of being rational adults, that means understanding where vulnerabilities lie but also not excusing exploitative behavior.
That is the frame we should be using to talk about Melania and Donald. Melania is a human being—not the flat stereotype of a fashion model gold digger nor the equally simplistic caricature of a hapless creature trapped by an evil man. A golden cage is still a prison. But cages have doors, and she's a grown woman, not an injured little bird. We should show empathy for her, given what we know about her husband, and as such decide to tread lightly and carefully when it comes to her role. But we should also hold her just as accountable as we would any person in close personal proximity to power. Demanding she be "free" accomplishes none of that.
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This article originally appeared on Cosmopolitan.com. Minor edits have been made by the Cosmo.ph editors.