It seems like only yesterday Melania Trump was being ridiculed for “borrowing” remarks from her predecessor, Michelle Obama, while Ivanka Trump was being touted as the calm, classy yin to her father’s never calm, not so classy yang. But what a difference 100 days can make. While Ivanka Trump and her business ventures have become yet another ethical distraction in an administration plagued by them, Melania Trump has emerged as…well, a surprisingly calm, classy counterbalance to her husband and those he surrounds himself with, including her stepdaughter.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way. During the presidential campaign the commonly held media wisdom was that while Melania Trump would be First Lady in name, Ivanka would really be the most important woman in Trump’s White House orbit.
But as outrage grows over reports that Ivanka received two patents for her clothing line in China following dinner with that country’s president, Melania is enjoying one of her best weeks to date. Not only was she credited with making her husband act more presidential when she nudged him in an apparent effort to remind him to place his hand on his heart during the national anthem, but she received a front-page apology from a leading news site for unflattering rumors published about her during the presidential election. The apology marks a full-circle moment, because the treatment she faced during the campaign was the beginning of Melania Trump emerging as a more sympathetic figure than her stepdaughter, who just days ago was met with boos while defending her father on an international women’s panel.
When nude photos of the First Lady were published last year, plenty of women who abhor her husband leapt to her defense. Many argued that efforts to make the photos a campaign issue were a form of sexism and “slut-shaming” and have no place in American politics. While a candidate’s sex life, including photos, can become a legitimate issue for voters, the reason Mrs. Trump engendered sympathy was in part that she never chose to run for office. In fact, what became painfully apparent on the campaign trail was that if given the choice she would probably run as far as humanly possible from the spotlight and the obsessive quest for power that consumes most Trumps. In other words, she’s the polar opposite of Ivanka.
Women are often criticized for ambition in a way that men never are. So let me say this for the record: Ivanka Trump is ambitious. That is not a legitimate reason to critique her. But there are legitimate reasons.
The most obvious is that she wants to enjoy the power and privilege her last name bestows upon her, without bearing blame for her father’s words or policies. While she told CBS News’ Gayle King that privately she disagrees with her father on certain issues, so far there has been little evidence that this has translated into tangible benefits for those affected by his policies. For instance, with her family’s money and connections, she could easily spearhead efforts to fund low-cost or no-cost birth control access nationwide.
Doing so would mean that women affected by Planned Parenthood closures, or potential cuts to the Affordable Care Act, wouldn’t have to worry about one of the most important issues impacting both women’s health and economic inequality. (Not to mention a reproductive policy issue that enjoys bipartisan support.) But there doesn’t seem to be a lot of room for such efforts when you’re busy protecting the Ivanka Trump brand which is in trouble, despite a sales bump credited to Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway.
The nationwide boycotts of Ivanka products, counter-boycotts by Trump supporters, and fallout from Conway’s efforts to help her brand, prove how much Ivanka Inc. has emerged as a symbol of everything everyone feels about her father, and with good reason. Her girl-power speech at the Republican National Convention signaled to women that it was safe to vote for a man who raised a daughter like her. The message was essentially, “I’m a down-to-Earth mom just like you!” Of course, she isn’t. She has lived a life of immense privilege, which is probably why she was oblivious to the fact that there were women affiliated with her companies who didn’t enjoy some of the pro-women policies she was touting on behalf of her father.
But there she was, making the case to women while decked out in an outfit from her line— an outfit that was priced reasonably enough to further her “I’m just like you” schtick. The dress sold out, which was probably the whole point when she decided to wear it. Her family-centric instagram posts reinforced her “our family’s just like yours—only a bit better looking and a lot richer” narrative. But when she posted a photo dressed in a ball gown while the nation raged over her father’s controversial executive order targeting those from Muslim countries, the moment epitomized what irritates many about Ivanka Trump. The only thing worse than being out of touch is being out of touch when you’ve spent so much time and effort pretending to be relatable.
During the campaign, relatable wasn’t a word that sprang to mind when it came to Melania Trump. She was dismissed as a cliché; a model turned trophy wife and worse. After a photo of her descending her husband’s jet with her coat tossed glamorously over her shoulders appeared, I remember a discussion in which her wardrobe was likened to that of a character from Dynasty. While Michelle Obama was credited with making First Lady fashion accessible to the average voter who could purchase one of her J. Crew sweaters, most women will never be able to afford anything Melania owns. And yet that doesn’t seem to bother anyone. She is winning fans, with approval ratings far higher than her husband’s.
Perhaps it’s because decked out in her designer duds it’s obvious she is being herself, wearing clothes she likes and looks great in, not something some political consultant told her to wear to appear relatable. Privately plenty of liberal women I know have begun peppering conversations with variations of “I can’t stand her husband, but she’s a beautiful woman, has great style and seems nice.” Those who’ve crossed paths with her speak of her kindness and lack of airs and lack of social climbing tendencies, which is so often assumed in those who marry well, not to mention her intelligence. (Yes, I know some of you just rolled your eyes. To which my response is, how many languages do you speak?)
While Ivanka originally engendered sympathy because, after all, you can’t help who your father is, she can help what she chooses to do with the power that comes with being his daughter. So far, she’s chosen to sell shoes, and sell an image of faux perfection on social media. But when most of us see images of Melania Trump with her husband, how could we not be sympathetic? I don’t think anyone looks at her and sees a woman with a perfect life. Instead, she looks like a woman trying to do what most of us are at the moment: survive her husband’s presidency as best we can.