08.22.2016
  • United States

Why They Hate Melania Trump

  • Agata Pyzik

The media's coverage of Melania Trump has been rife with stereotypes about Eastern European women.

We should just come out and say it — Donald Trump has a thing for Eastern European women.

I remember Trump’s first wife Ivana well — Polish magazines praised her, and thousands of Dynasty-watching post-Communist women, who saw their aspirations reflected in the Czech immigrant and successful businesswoman, adored her. Though New York’s high society never fully accepted her, Eastern Europe — then in the throes of a brutal capitalist transition — admired Ivana’s entrepreneurialism.

Today, her ex-husband marches on Washington accompanied by another Eastern European woman — ex-model Melania Knauss, born Melanija Knavs in 1970 in Nove Mesto, Slovenia, which was then part of Josip Tito’s Yugoslavia.

Although we know that Melania Trump’s views on issues like immigration match her husband’s, Trump generally prefers she be seen and not heard. Perhaps because she so often appears as the blowhard candidate’s silent partner, her speech last month at the Republican National Convention was hotly anticipated. But her remarks took a disastrous turn when audiences realized she had lifted a significant portion from Michelle Obama’s 2008 convention speech. Trump simply repeated the first lady’s words as her own — even when discussing personal topics like the work ethic her Slovenian family taught her.

Everyone understood that Trump wasn’t fully to blame: the campaign’s spin doctors wouldn’t have let her write the speech herself, and the real author was soon revealed. Nonetheless, almost all the gleeful responses that followed the gaffe concentrated on her.

The brutal and unrelenting critics assailed her intelligence, even digging up transcripts from her brief stint at Ljubljana University — which she swiftly swapped for a modeling career. One — expatriate Polish scholar Monika Nalepa — took this line of attack a step further, ascribing the plagiarism to Trump’s “corrupt” Communist education.

Nalepa’s article is riddled with inaccuracies and marred by her obvious anticommunist prejudice — she conflates the Communist and post-Communist periods while ignoring the cultural and political diversity of Eastern Europe to depict the region as a uniformly decrepit place, populated by the badly educated homo sovieticus.

At its core, her argument is so simple as to be absurd: Eastern Europeans cheated during Communism because of the failing and ideological educational system. We cheat now because we were taught by cheating Communist teachers. It seems there’s no escape — unless, like Nalepa, we can experience the grace of Western education.

Times may have changed since the West viewed Communist refugees as criminals intent on stealing your car, with only a talented few capable of succeeding in the world of capitalist competition. After all, we have followed the capitalist rules with the diligence of Benedictine monks for the past thirty years. But still, stereotypes of Eastern Europeans as inherently shabby and tainted prevail.

The Western media explains any problems Eastern Europe faces today by evoking the memory of Communism, often obscuring the varied history of Communist Eastern Europe in the process. Yugoslavia participated in the Non-Aligned Movement and experimented with various forms of socialist and capitalist economies, and Trump’s native Slovenia was its most affluent region.

Further, those eager to demonstrate Eastern Europe’s inherent backwardness focus particularly on women from the region. If Trump hailed from the American upper class — or even from a healthy breed of the American bourgeoisie — she wouldn’t experience nearly as much derision and mockery.

But Eastern European women are regularly dismissed as poorly educated while at the same time relentlessly sexualized. Athletes, models, and even political activists commonly appear as sex objects in Western fantasies. The media covers Anna Kournikova’s and Maria Sharapova’s looks in as much detail as their tennis careers. They praise Pussy Riot’s Nadia Tolokonnikova and Maria Alokhina for their glamor and sex appeal — a strange fascination rarely extended to male political prisoners.

It’s true that all women, regardless of their national origin, become subject to the media’s relentless sexism. But the sexualization of Eastern European women goes further, rooted in both historical conditions and cultural misconceptions.

Because they came from underprivileged areas, many women migrants from Eastern Europe — some of them refugees — worked in the domestic service and sex industries. Many, even in liberal and left circles, still perceive Eastern European women through this lens.

By the same token, they are often presented as more submissive and therefore less prone to feminist ideas than their Western counterparts — that is, as perfect wife material for unrepentant sexists like Donald Trump. In fact, the Western demand for docile women has spawned the massive mail-order bride industry that routinely matches Ukrainian or Russian women with affluent Western men.

Anti–Eastern European sexism consistently casts women like Trump as gold-diggers or mindless bimbos, with incomprehensible Slavic accents. At they same time, they are forced to act out the supposed inferiority of socialist society — silent, meek, and feeble-minded.

Melania Trump should certainly be criticized for her politics. But the giddy attacks on Trump have demonstrated that disdain for Eastern Europe still holds currency in mainstream American discourse — and far too often, Eastern European women become the immediate targets.