Objectifying Melania Trump

This week, the New York Post dedicated not one, but two, covers to nude photos of Melania Trump. On Sunday, the Post printed an issue with the front page headline “The Ogle Office” and an image of a nude Melania from a 1995 photo shoot for a French men’s magazine. The sub-headline read, “You’ve never seen a potential first lady like this!” On Monday, the Post continued its exploitative coverage by putting another 1995 photo of Melania nude with another woman on its cover, accompanied by the headline, “Menage a Trump.”

A few things – first, this level of sophistication is typical for the New York Post, and it is unsurprising that they are opting for salaciousness over substance. In presenting these images without Melania Trump’s input or – most importantly – without any substantive profile of her as a potential first lady, the Post engages in the most blatant form of objectification. By definition, objectification entails reducing individuals, usually women, to their bodies and appearance, denying their autonomy, crossing boundaries of respect and decency for their feelings or experience, and effectively silencing them. When Melania Trump gave her permission to publicly share these photos two decades ago, she was given power over how her image and body were used. She was not afforded the same autonomy this week.

Rachel Sklar tweeted that the photos’ latest publication was “not relevant” and simply meant to shame Melania Trump. She is correct on both fronts. The irrelevance of the photos was referenced by Fortune’s Ian Mount, when he noted that shifts in social mores have yielded a “much less puritanical age.” That shift makes the purpose of publishing the photos, shaming Melania Trump, less effective. In fact, the Trump campaign’s response to the images has been to commend them as a “celebration of the human body as art,” and “nothing to be embarrassed about.” For possibly the first time, feminist commentators may agree with the Trump campaign on this point. Still, by assuming that their publication would damage her reputation, the Post feeds into perceptions that women displaying their bodies – particularly for profit – is immoral and, importantly, unfitting of a first lady.

That leads specifically to what this coverage says about public perceptions of gender and the presidency. When the New York Post evokes shock at the idea that a woman who has posed nude could somehow become first lady, it upholds traditional expectations of – and constraints on – the president’s spouse. The first lady has long symbolized a sort of “ideal woman” in American culture, fitting starkly traditional gender norms of being polite, demure, and reflective and praising of their husband’s power instead of interfering with it. Women who have violated those norms have faced backlash, Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama among them. However, first ladies have also chipped away at some of the gender traditionalism that has limited both the image and opportunities of presidential spouses. Whether in public or behind closed doors, first ladies have long played far more powerful roles than the roles for which they are given credit. If Donald Trump is elected, Melania Trump will have that power as well. But recognizing her potential for influence in the White House means looking beyond her body or beauty to give credit to the person she is, experience she brings, and voice she has – which has been largely missing from this campaign.