Melania: The 21st-Century Garbo
Melania, the subject of my recent impersonation, reminds me so much of Greta Garbo, the subject of one of my solo plays. It is not just because they are foreign-born and elusive fashion icons who made a home in NYC, but also because of how their image operates in public.
MGM, the biggest movie studio in the Vintage Hollywood era, realized early on that having Garbo La Davina remain elusive and mysterious only added to her popularity. Without the steady stream of stories coming from the MGM press office the public, in a frenzy, made up their own. Did Stephanie Grisham watch Garbo movies as inspiration for the East Wing’s strategy? Rouben Mamoulian told Garbo that for the last shot Queen Christina, “Think of nothing, let the audience fill in the rest.”
The current administration has turned gaslighting into a high art by using the mystery surrounding Melania. Fashion is their favorite mode, but they subtly manipulate her image in other ways, too. Without explanation they make Melania wear something inane and then when the media responds they accuse them of focusing on triviality.
The jacket of a twelve-year-old, the single glove of Michael Jackson, and a Nazi outfit of Indiana Jones were not coincidences, they were traps. Simple costume changes that were guaranteed to get a response. Once the White House got the reaction they hoped to get they twisted it to deligitimize the media. It’s akin to wearing an Elmo costume into Times Square and when someone stops to take a picture you turn around and say, “You’re harassing me!”
The #FakeMelania trend is another example. Who knows what is true. I find it too convenient, another way to convince her husband’s supporters to disavow the media. And even more freaky is to think that Melania might have been asked to change her makeup and movement just to start the body-double speculation again. A few subtle shifts and you can manipulate the public!
(The only thing I’m 100% sure about is how pissed I am that I wasn’t offered the job! Although I wouldn’t have accepted it in fear that simulating Melania in the bedroom was part of the gig.)
As we gear up for the 2020 election cycle the administration will only increasingly use Melania as their political pawn. Her recent speech about Venezuela conflated communism and socialism. It seems like an oversight, but it was really meant to lay the ground work to make Melania the poster child against socialism if one of the democratic socialist candidates gets the Democratic nomination. You might know that those three systems of government are different, but most Americans do not. Many are willing to take her word for it.
When it comes to news about the First Lady we have to do what negotiation expert Jim Camp called “re-react.” Let your initial response wash over you, then think through the situation. Question their motives at all times. This seems obvious for a member of the Trump family, but because she’s so aloof Melania is too often given amnesty from cautious examination.
For this reason First Lady parody is useful. I’ve certainly created my own, but there are other people doing the good work. Our motivation is straightforward: we’re digging for the truth behind the haze that feels like it’s being manufactured by a smoke machine.