President Trump’s first foreign trip has drawn global attention, both to his own interactions with world leaders and to the behavior of his family members. In particular, Melania and Ivanka Trump are center stage, their body language, style choices, and political agendas being examined more critically than even their domestic appearances.
Of course, this isn’t new for women in the first family. Melania and Ivanka are scrutinized both for their candid moments in the public eye as well as for their curated social media profiles. Often, the scrutiny focuses on how their own personas clash with that of the president. For Melania, it’s promoting an anti-bullying campaign while her husband mocked a disabled reporter; for Ivanka, it’s leading a women’s empowerment initiative while her dad filled the majority of his Cabinet with white men with whom he’d done business in his life before politics.
But Ivanka and Melania’s softer public personas may be strategic, according to Dr. Lauren Wright, author of On Behalf of the President: Presidential Spouses and White House Communications Strategy Today. Political spouses have the ability to “influence public perceptions of a politician’s character” in ways others cannot.
“Since their political capital is mainly their personal relationship with the person, spouses can highlight aspects of the president’s (or leader’s) character or personality in a way the leader himself or his professional colleague cannot do as credibly,” Wright told Yahoo Style in an email. “A positive message about the president appears more authentic, more believable, coming from the person who has the most access to him, knows him the best, and has spent the most time with him.”
In this way, the United States is not unique. Take France’s new First Lady, Brigitte Macron, who has been called a “breath of fresh air” by gender studies experts. Her age (64, to her husband’s 39), and the story of her relationship with now-President Emmanuel Macron, could have helped her husband avoid an overly masculine persona during his campaign, the experts theorize.
In Canada, Sophie Grégoire Trudeau’s Instagram page features photos of her and Prime Minister husband Justin and their children commemorating World War II soldiers and celebrating International Women’s Day (though that post drew ire from some.)
It’s still too early in the Trump presidency to determine what Melania’s or Ivanka’s legacies will truly be, or to determine what kind of good the Trump presidency can accomplish. For some international leaders embroiled in controversy, even their wives’ best efforts to convince the public their husbands are benevolent aren’t enough.
Asma Assad, Syrian president Bashar Assad’s wife, was once referred to as a “rose in the desert” in a Vogue profile that lives in infamy (though not on the Vogue website). But the public perception of Assad now, at least outside Syria, has ostensibly stiffened, with many suggesting she’s complicit in her husband’s human rights abuses.
Most recently, members of the British government have referred to Assad in opinion pieces as a “cheerleader for evil” and have called the British government to revoke Assad’s British citizenship, even though she was born in London.
But you wouldn’t know that looking at her Instagram page, which has 132,000 followers. She posts photos visiting “wounded heroes” and disabled children, and often uses the hashtag “#WeLoveYouAsma” in what seem to be her own posts.
Political spouses like Assad have greater control over the kind of coverage they receive, in part because they don’t have to grant the kind of media access that their elected spouses do.
“They have the luxury of choosing the outlet that will give them the most favorable coverage, or they can go to alternative media outlets, like late-night talk shows and scripted and reality TV where they know their message will be disseminated to a large and broad audience,” Wright said.
Case in point: On Facebook, the Syrian first lady posted a 2016 Russian news documentary, of which she was the subject, which explored her role in the Assad administration. The documentary begins with an interview inside the Syrian “presidential palace,” then chronicles how she “receives martyr families,” (families of deceased Syrian army fighters) who then bestow upon her adoring praise.
Honeylet Avanceña, common-law wife to Filipino president Rodrigo Duterte, is another example of a spouse whose presence adds a layer of warmth to a hawkish politician. While her husband forcefully tackles his country’s ongoing war against drugs, Avanceña makes public appearances at museums and visits sick children in Cambodian hospitals. President Duterte, sometimes referred to as “the Punisher,” also appears on the Instagram page of his wife’s daughter, Veronica “Kitty” Duterte, hardly as menacing as his nickname implies.
In Brazil, first lady Marcela Tedeschi Temer posts about her children’s initiatives on Instagram, saying in a post translated from Portuguese, “talked about how the investment in each child can generate a better future for our country.”
Meanwhile, President Michel Temer remains embroiled in an ongoing corruption investigation that has led an estimated 35,000 Brazilians to protest against the government. Temer responded by deploying federal troops to contain the violence.
Trying to list all of the examples becomes exhausting. South African First Lady Bongi Ngema-Zuma, one of President Jacob Zuma’s four wives, joins the president on his international trips and leads a diabetes awareness foundation; President Zuma, meanwhile, fends off increasing momentum from opponents who are calling for his removal from office after evidence of corruption surfaced last year.
In Turkey, democratic-cum-autocratic President Recep Erdogan imprisoned at least 120 journalists in the last year for “terrorism,” what we’d call dissent in the U.S. His wife, Emine, uses her Instagram to post photos of the events she attends that promote social, medical, and youth causes. In a recent post, she captioned a photo in Turkish of her delivering a speech, translated into English, saying, “This land has always been a target in all periods of history, it has been blinded, and we have to look at it like our eyes, we have to live our life by understanding its importance, its value. I can do this only through a conscious and patriotic youth.”
Although it’s not a hard-and-fast rule that a politician’s wife must champion specific causes, it all comes down to strategically influencing public perception, Wright said. “The idea that women have different concerns and priorities than men remains a controversial one, but what I found in my research was that there is often a normative benefit to having an active spouse in the White House, especially a spouse that travels internationally.”
So, perhaps these women are more like wolves in sheep’s clothing — if sheep wear Dolce & Gabbana, that is.
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Alexandra Mondalek is a writer for Yahoo Style + Beauty. Follow her on Twitter @amondalek.