Asked if she ever imagined being “first lady” of the United States in a November 11, 2017 CNN interview, First Lady Melania Trump instead answered an unspoken question of her own. “It’s a lot of things that we need to take care of, and a lot of responsibilities,” said Trump, “And it’s all part of being the first lady.”
“With that,” the story continues, “Trump climbed aboard a rattling cable car for the steep ride up to the top of a mountain, where she posed for pictures in front of the assembled press, accepted a ceremonial scroll, and then turned and walked, alone, along the Great Wall of China.”
This image of Mrs. Trump, prim, carefully dressed, isolated, often caricatured as a princess in a golden Trumpian castle and here surrounded by the crenellated edges of the Great Wall, will be paired in the public’s mind with another image of Melania’s stiletto heels on the wet runway as she leaves to view the damage from Hurricane Irma.
On January 12, 2018, the usually-staid Town & Country Magazine published in its print edition for February an article speculating on what Mrs. Trump would get if she were to divorce Mr. Trump. Various divorce lawyers provide guesses (none of them have a clue) about the likely prenuptial agreement, what will happen with custody of the youngest Trump child, and whether Mrs. Trump would gain from wealth and status accrued due to her “service” as her husband successfully ran for President.
There are several surprising aspects to this column. It is unlikely that Town & Country would publish such an article without notifying the First Lady’s office, even though there is no evidence of such contact. But the magazine is cosy-cosy with those of large fortunes and social ambitions, typically covering debutante balls and the lifestages of very wealthy (albeit eager-to-appear-in-a-magazine) socialites. It’s a curious story and it is highly suggestive that it appears in the tony pages of Town & Country. Another odd fact: Melania Trump has never been the subject of a cover of the magazine; her step-daughter Ivanka has been.
On Saturday, Jan. 21, 2018, Guardian ran a story by Lucia Graves discussing how Mrs. Trump was typical, not unusual, in her absence on the public stage during the first year of her husband’s presidency. A screen shot from that article pretty much sums up Graves’s point.
I’d argue, though, that Melania’s absence is not just that she has forsaken the traditional role of promoting her husband (something historian Lauren A. Wright notes has characterized 20th-century presidencies). It is that she is almost wholly absent. This is especially obvious when you consider women’s magazines.
Mrs. Coolidge appeared on the cover of Time Magazine September 17, 1928. It’s an interesting photograph: severe in her black dress with rolled white collar, she sits with jaw slightly clenched and hands clasped. It is, as far as I can tell, the first “First Lady” magazine cover, promoting Mrs. Coolidge’s stylishness (those crimped waves were quite modern, as was the length; apparently, her husband disapproved of her bobbed hair). For more about Mrs. Coolidge’s style (often daring!) a quick detour to the Grace Goodhue Coolidge page at Time Magazine is a start.
After that, First Ladies appeared regularly on the covers of general family-interest and women’s magazines. Mamie Eisenhower appeared on cover after cover, sometimes in reprinted press photos, other times with sittings or portrait paintings. Her cheerful, unflappable face with its regular march of curls, and her quiet, banal stylishness subtly promoted her husband’s agenda and the commercial content of the magazines. She embodied the ideal 1950s commercial product, tailored for mass consumption. Non-controversial, white, mildly stylish, Mamie fit the times quite well.
Laura Bush, an introvert in a very public role, appeared on many a cover — almost never a fashion magazine but usually a general-interest or family-oriented periodical. This screen shot of google image search results for “first lady magazine covers” shows that Laura Bush was quite popular as a cover subject, as was Nancy Reagan, while Barbara Bush was less popular. Laura Bush was never especially stylish nor striking — unlike Nancy Reagan, whose years in Hollywood made her especially adept at self-presentation. (image: google image search “First ladies magazine covers”)Michelle Obama, however, was extremely popular with American magazines, appearing on the covers of dozens (perhaps hundreds) of magazines ranging from fashion (Vogue in particular, with three covers for them) to style (T Magazine’s striking black-and-white photo of Mrs. Obama in a shoulder-less outfit), InStyle, More. She appeared on the covers of Ebony and Essence and also Reader’s Digest and Prevention. She appeared on her own, with her husband, with Meryl Streep. She appeared in fashionable clothing, high style clothing, fitness gear, casual wear. Her image was so useful to the magazine industry that there are fake, photoshopped covers (see the yellow cover lower right corner). Other covers were so successful that when appearing on talk shows she was asked about the cover — her investment in time to have the photo taken was rewarded with amplification by other parts of the industry. She was, in many ways, a gold mine of content, offering generalized appeal through the force of her personality and her public career as First Lady.
Since both Melania Trump and Ivanka Trump were models (both briefly and without major success), I though magazines would jump at the opportunity to use either woman on their covers. It’s an easy, inexpensive way to provide eye-catching content. But… there’s the obvious problems of the president’s deep unpopularity, his especially divisive presence in terms of women, and his general whiff of unstable hysteria. So during the campaign year of 2016, there were a few covers. But since then, no new covers. And in an extremely odd twist, magazine editors seem uncertain who to focus on, Melania or Ivanka? The gendered role of a “First Lady” is integral to a presidential administration; the series of male presidents have relied on the feminizing, supposedly non-political public face of the First Lady to communicate broader, humanizing sentiments about the President. This administration’s problems of direction, goals, and actions, make using either woman difficult. And due to the his behavior towards to two main players, his daughter Ivanka (see my post, What’s missing in Ivanka’s closet about the unsettling, unnerving publically-performed aspects of this relationship) and Melania (whom he often ignores or debases publically), it’s unclear which of the two women speaks for the Administration. So neither of the two is used by magazines for the cheerful, inexpensive content.
Even magazines that formerly welcomed, for example, Trump daughter Ivanka have cooled to her. Town & Country is far more at ease with Ivanka Trump before her father’s political campaign. In 2008 Ms. Trump was its cover model, a fresh-faced woman posed in a blue and white color scheme.
And in February 2016, during the campaign, she was again featured on the cover.
(both images found on Politico.com image carousel, “Cover Girl: Ivanka Trump”)
The February 2016 story is particularly intent on positioning Ms. Trump as a potential political player (note the header on the cover: “VOTE IVANKA!”. Uh, okay, but she’s not running. Her qualifications appear to be that she is the earnest daughter of a man running for president, and she’s pregnant, and she wears that pink ruffled dress well. The story itself sketches out a future for the nation, ruled by a series of Trumps. She is, we learn, “In Charge of a Growing American Dynasty“. And we see the means of this dynastic growth as Ivanka clutches her pelvic area, quite literally the place of this birthing of a new reign of American would-be leaders.
So what happens when the first stone for the castle is laid, and Donald Trump is elected? Ivanka is no longer a safe cover image. Her strongest selling point was wealth wrapped in the soft fluffy cushion of banality. Her clothing line relies on “millennial pink” — a pink that bears a strong resemblance to that favored by Mamie Eisenhower in the 1950s.
Town & Country, despite its 2016 pre-election enthusiasm, has featured neither Ivanka Trump or Melania Trump on the cover. In fact, only one magazine has featured Mrs. Trump — Vanity Fair Mexico rehashed content from a GQ issue and re-used a photo of Mrs. Trump spooning and forking jewels. The cover was not popular in Mexico and was strongly criticized by Mexican officials after controversial statements by the newly-elected U.S. President.
Previous first ladies, especially in the last forty years, have been a commercial mainstay of women’s and general interest magazines. First ladies are more popular than their husbands and their ability to convey priorities of the President’s administration in nominally-depoliticized ways has been very very useful to American leaders. And the current president’s wife, a former model, and daughter, another former model, were obviously going to continue the tradition. But American and international magazines, understanding the tidal shifts better than political leaders, are staying away. It’s no loss at all, to consumers or marketers. To a Presidential administration struggling with sliding numbers and ever-growing disapproval numbers from women, it is costly. The lack of a feminized, approachable face to policies that are otherwise opposed to the interests of women’s lives is problematic. There’s a reason magazine covers were “all part of being first lady.” For the current president the lack of an alternative, especially as his daughter’s ability to transactionally convey “approachability” has been hampered by, for example, the biting commentary of SNL’s skit, “Complicit” and Ivanka’s strange, ambiguous role within the center of power, has meant there’s no effective way to reach this market of general-audience women. And the complicity is, indeed, “all part of being first lady”.