The non-scandal of Melania Trump’s modeling photos
Adam Gopnik writes in the New Yorker:
The story of Melania Trump’s old nude photos, and their odd blossoming into a fable of the trials of immigration, will probably remain as a footnote to this bizarre Presidential campaign, though footnotes to this campaign are rather like footnotes to “Finnegans Wake”: the text itself is so confounding that there isn’t a sentence that might not call for one. Still, it is worth ruminating over for a moment, before it passes away, for two reasons. It shows an unexpected maturity in American life, and then something predictably depressing about the hypocrisy within it, too.
The nudes, alone and à deux, of Melania Knauss (to use her name when the photos were taken, back in the nineties), appeared in the New York Post the weekend before last. Melania’s most notable previous appearance had occurred when she said a few words at the Republican Convention, which were quickly discovered to be, in part, actually Michelle Obama’s words. This was a hard début in the role of the nominee’s wife, though, in fact, she was treated extraordinarily gently, the assumption being that, despite her having declared that she had written the speech herself with as “little help as possible,” she was not really responsible for it. (And another assumption being that her declaring that she’d written it was the kind of white lie that all political spouses are expected to tell, like saying that they love getting up early on winter mornings and campaigning in Iowa.)
The appearance of the photos in the Post would, one might have thought in an earlier time, suggest that they were intended to shock or offend the Trump campaign. But to think this is to misunderstand the role of the Post as it exists today, which is as a sort of Potemkin tabloid. It looks like and poses as a populist paper, but it actually loses money (the sum, in recent years, has been estimated as being in the tens of millions) and exists principally to give its owner, Rupert Murdoch, a paper platform in New York City. (It does have a terrific sports section.) Since Murdoch’s Post is the only paper in New York to be resolutely pro-Trump, there seems to be a decent chance that the pictures were published with Trump’s acquiescence, if not his aid. This may seem odd, but in truth Trump has a long history of actively feeding information to the press that more normally constituted citizens might find embarrassing. And it did serve as a distraction from all the other, still more embarrassing things that were going on around the candidate. (There are always such things going on around Trump.) The publication of the photographs was obviously expected to outrage some and enrage others and distract everyone. In some other, earlier epochs in American life—specifically, in the eighties, to which Trump still spiritually belongs—they would indeed have served as a distraction from almost every other controversy going. (As Trump surely recognized, the pictures would have distracted him.)
What was so strange and oddly cheering was that, on the whole, nobody took the bait. Did Trump expect his wife to be subjected to a storm of mockery, so that he could spring to her defense? Apart from some scattershot sneering, it didn’t happen. Was he expecting his political rivals to publicly question him so that he could defend her, while simultaneously pointing out how much hotter she was than every other candidate’s wife? Didn’t happen. Did the Post and Trump both expect hooting from feminist Hillary supporters, or even from one Clinton or the other, thus revealing their hypocritical readiness to turn on a woman with the wrong politics? That didn’t happen either. Nothing happened. The photographs were received almost entirely without scandal, because, well, because education does happen, and change does take place, and even the most benighted among us, Trump quite possibly aside, now understand that a woman’s body is hers to pose and have photographed more or less as she chooses, and that it is for the rest of us to respect her choices and to look or not at the photographs as we choose. The wrongness of “slut shaming” women, as we call it now, for appearing in pictures, either artful or erotic, is apparent to all. We already knew that Melania had worked as a model, and that models take these kinds of pictures. (That objectifying yourself for money might still be an imprudent way to spend your youth, perhaps because it leaves you vulnerable when you’re older, is another question worth pursuing, but one for the colleges more than for the tabloids.)
Nobody blamed Melania. Most people understood that she had nothing to be ashamed of, though one might wonder how all those Christian evangelicals who support Trump could reconcile the pictures with their hard faith. Even given the desperate nature of people’s anxiety about Trump, it was almost universally accepted that his wife’s posing for nude pictures in the past was not a proper subject for political scrutiny. It must have been an enormous disappointment to him.
This marks a genuine change, perhaps even a revolution, in America’s ability not to be shocked by the not particularly shocking. Back in those same eighties during which Trump first crawled from the primal tabloid swamp, as some may recall, the gifted Vanessa Williams, having become the first black Miss America, was discovered to have posed for similar pictures, which, once passed toPenthouse, caused her to be stripped of her crown and cast out into the darkness. Williams proved resilient and made a fine career for herself as a singer and actress. The pageant has since apologized to her.
And then, suddenly, something did happen. . .