On Pitying Melania

Did you see the gif? The one that features Melania Trump, the newly installed first lady of the United States, radiantly smiling as her husband gazes upon her … and then, as he turns away, allowing the grin to melt into a frown? Grin-grimace, grin-grimace, grin-grimace, looping into eternity.

Call it a Kinsley gif: The image seemed to reveal, in its frozen fluidity, an unspoken truth—about Melania, about her marriage, about all of us. During a time of Much News, it quickly became conversation fodder. Slate offered “A Detailed Forensic Analysis of Melania Trump’s Creepy, Devastating Inauguration Smile/Frown.” Jezebel shared it with the sardonic declaration that “Melania Trump Definitely Loves Her Husband and Is Very Happy to Be Here.” New York magazine did a fact-check of the video the gif came from to assure us, finally, that “That Awkward Clip of Donald and Melania at the Inauguration Is Definitely Real.” (Snopes agreed, but warned that the video is inconclusive when it comes to its ability to reveal Melania’s emotions.) #FreeMelania trended.

And not just online. The gif went viral during the same time that found Trump’s inauguration, his first actions as president, and the Women’s March on Washington forcefully colliding within the space of a weekend; during that last event, many marchers used their protest real estate—the signs they thrust in the air, to be photographed and otherwise shared—to offer messages like “MELANIA: BLINK TWICE IF YOU NEED HELP” and, more plainly and more plaintively, “FREE MELANIA.”

This professed sympathy for Melania Knauss Trump—the projecting, the concern-trolling, the presidential fan-fiction-ing—is part of a long-standing narrative in pop culture: the cheeky but also insistent assumption that the new first lady is the sad and sleepy heroine of a decidedly modern fairy tale. Saturday Night Live, in its several parodies of Mrs. Trump during the campaign, portrayed her as a Rapunzel figure, her body and her dreams trapped within her gilded tower, her hair never quite long enough to allow her to reach the ground and its freedoms. The Late Show With Stephen Colbert painted a similar picture, tapping the Broadway star Laura Benanti to portray Melania as maybe-or-maybe-not-sending-‘HELP ME’-messages-in-Morse-code. Super Deluxe’s stump-speech remix, my colleague Spencer Kornhaber noted, painted Melania as alternately “a robot or hypnosis victim.”

Everyone was wondering what was in the Tiffany box that Melania handed Michelle Obama… We were hoping it was this