The Phenomenon of the First Lady

© MARK SHAW, JACKIE ON A PRIVATE CRUISE, RAVELLO, ITALY, 1962 // © STEVE SCHAPIRO, ROBERT F. KENNEDY AND HIS WIFE ETHEL ON A CAMPAIGN PLANE, 1968 // Courtesy of Camera Work Berlin

Daniel C. Schmidt reflects upon the phenomenon of the First Lady and the movie “Jackie”

From one woman to another: This January once again a male president will move into the White House with his wife. With a bit of luck she’ll at least be interested in politics.

To make fun of Melania Trump would be a somewhat easy task. The former lingerie model from Slovenia was stylised as a literal trophy wife throughout the campaign; as the woman merely by Donald Trump’s side, the future president of the United States – not more, not less. She only attended few public events. And when it was finally her chance to say something she used the words of her predecessor Michelle Obama.

But even away from the political stage, little of her own poetry seemed to shine through: “If I say, ‘I need an hour, I’m going to take a bath,’ or ‘I’m having a massage’, he doesn’t have nothing against it. He’s very supportive in that way”, Melania once gave away in an interview about her spouse and world-famous women’s right defender Donald Trump.

The abundance of inexperience of the next First Lady Melania Trump seems all the more backward considering the fact that Michelle Obama couldn’t have interpreted the office more progressively.

To understand in what way, we have to take one or two steps back and look at the bigger picture. In a historical sense, the First Lady of the United States is an amalgam of devoted wife, caring mother and Mother Theresa. An American angel if you want. However, she shouldn’t flap her wings to eagerly; otherwise it might seem like she has her head in the clouds.

In practice this means: if she was working beforehand, the First Lady automatically gives up her former career, to lead a staff that takes care of her charity functions. This benevolent engagement should preferably be restricted to rather apolitical topics: Laura Bush promoted education, Hillary Clinton supported family projects, Nancy Reagan fought against drug abuse, while Melania Trump wants to put the lid on cyber mobbing (The fact that a renowned Twitter tyrant switches off the bedside lamps next to her every night is another ironic highlight of the campaign).

All of this happens without payment, by the way. The woman of the house is there to embody a reflection of her husband and his political vision – and to be judged by the fashion police in between. The First Ladies remain in a sense unknown, next to the most famous gentlemen of the world. With a few exceptions.

 

On November 22 in 1963 the American people looked at Jackie Kennedy, all at once. After the assassination of her husband John F. Kennedy in Dallas, Texas, it was Jackie who had to lead the way and tell the people how to react: grief? resignation? Showing strength in a moment of utter vulnerability?

As ever so often in her role as First Lady, Jackie Kennedy let fashion do the talking. It becomes obvious that clothing can serve as a sort of protective shield to maintain a facade when watching “Jackie”, a movie well worth seeing, that will screen in German theaters starting January 2017, and also while visiting the exhibition “The Kennedys” in the Berlin-based gallery CAMERA WORK. On the day of the funeral, her veil gave just enough insight into Jackie Kennedy’s pale face, without exposing her in this moment of weakness. In her sorrow, Jackie presented herself open and covered at once.

Yet, to really get through the surface of the ever-representative facade of the First Lady, it would require a more timely interpretation of the office. Less “arm candy”, more: independent individual.

Thus, Michelle Obama, a Harvard Law School alumna, promoted a nutritional and fitness initiative for schoolkids and on top of that picked the politically controversial topic of stopping gun violence. In her husband’s campaign as well as Hillary Clinton’s she was always sent where the most support was needed. Because of her more active role, she earned higher approval ratings than any of the leading politicians at the end of election year 2016.

By the way, Melania Trump – spouse of Donald Trump, who is perhaps the most disliked president that has ever been elected –  has already made it clear that she strives for “a traditional role” as First Lady.

“Jackie”, the movie by Pablo Larraín, started in the US on December 2nd and will hit the german theaters in January 2017. See the trailer here: 

The exhibition “The Kennedys” will take place from December 3rd until January 14th at CAMERA WORK on Kantstraße 149, 10623 Berlin.

 

Author: Daniel C. Schmidt

Since January Daniel C. Schmidt works in the United States as a freelance reporter, mainly reporting about pop, culture and politics for several german media outlets. You can reach him via Twitter. On Instagram he provides his followers with a daily mini playlist.

Translation: Jessica Aimufua