Every time Melania Trump makes another odd gaffe, I can't help but see it as a useful thing for gender equality. It forces a conversation about how to measure the first lady’s performance, or whether we even should. It highlights the archaic expectations baked into her role.
This week, her office unveiled the White House Christmas decor, which included a roomful of blood-red trees that looked like leftover props from "The Babadook" — and let me tell you, the first lady has definitely given us a useful conversation.
The trees were roundly mocked as horrifying. Obviously, she didn't build them herself. (She didn't even show up for the unveiling, which prompted more consternation.) But she did sign off on them, presumably. They're technically under her purview.
So, why does that matter anyway? Should we expect Melania to be a professional host? In presidential elections, should nominees' spouses be forced to compete as well, via portfolios of their home decor and cocktail reception hors d'oeuvres?
Family Circle has long held a first spouse cookie contest. In 2016, Bill and Hillary Clinton submitted the Clinton Family's chocolate chip cookies, which dominated the reader poll. Meanwhile, Melania's star cookie recipe came with "hardly any directions," the magazine's food director said. The result was a bland wafer — the cookie version of a shrug.
Sure, there were ways to explain it. Maybe the cookies were mild because the former model avoids rich foods. Maybe the recipe was nonspecific because the first lady mixes the ingredients by instinct. The more obvious explanation, though, is the one exemplified by the terrifying arboreous formation currently looming in the White House's East Colonnade: Melania is just plain bad at this.
She is bad at the domestic, cheery, front-facing work of being a first lady — the facet of the job we associate with homemaking and that we've expected presidents' wives to cheerfully do, free, for 250 years. We've expected them to slide effortlessly into the role even when they're coming off their own decadeslong careers as lawyers or librarians or hospital administrators. Even when we have no idea if they care about the job.
With every public act, Melania is telling us she'd prefer not to have the gig. Her signature campaign, "Be Best," was haphazard and amorphous to begin with — something to do with bullying? Not bullying? Online bullying? — and nearly nonexistent before long. She's been slow to hire staff. She has regularly made jarring fashion choices — a colonial-style pith helmet in Africa, the infamous "I really don't care, do u?" jacket — while trying to fulfill the most basic first lady obligations of smiling and listening.
And, yes, a few days ago, she apparently inspected a gantlet of murderous trees and some janky-looking wreaths made of Be Best pencils, and her reaction was, Looks good!
And then she skipped her own party.
Instead of sending out contorted messages trying to prove Melania is great at the job — her spokeswoman explained the first lady's absence by saying she wanted "to let the decorations speak for themselves" — the White House should go with what appears to be the truth: This isn't her thing. She doesn't care. Being first lady, at least the traditional idea of one, is not where Melania's interests lie. She's not bingeing on a Chip and Joanna Gaines marathon in search of cute ideas for state dinner place card holders. She's not going to dance with Ellen DeGeneres.
If everyone could just admit that Melania is bad at this, then we could accomplish two things. One, it would help us recognize that the role is work. It doesn't come as naturally to everyone as it apparently came to Nancy Reagan, who started the Christmas preview tradition. The tasks of hosting dignitaries, traveling on behalf of an administration, glad-handing and public speaking all require skill, enthusiasm and lots of time.
And, two, we'd recognize that these activities probably deserve compensation.
If you want someone to care deeply about White House decorations, if you want someone to show up and speak elegantly and engagingly about how this year's holiday themes represent America, and if you want that person to have excellent taste — if you want all that, then perhaps we should stop expecting the person filling that role to always be the person who is married to the president.
Hire it out. Make it a "Host of the United States," and make it gender-neutral. The job should go to the person who wants nothing more than to talk color palettes and gingerbread decor. The job should simultaneously highlight that "feminine" pursuits are important, and should make it clear that men can have those interests, too.
It's outdated and nonsensical that this role still falls automatically to the president's spouse.
So hire it out, and then let Melania blithely ignore the performative aspects of first ladyship. She wouldn't have to Be Best. She wouldn't even have to be doing these tasks at all.
The Washington Post
Monica Hesse is a Post columnist.