What Melania Trump’s official portrait says about the new First Lady

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Melania Trump

The White House has shared the first official portrait of Melania Trump.

Details about the photograph are still scarce, but officials say the picture was taken at the White House.

“I am honoured to serve in the role of First Lady, and look forward to working on behalf of the American people over the coming years,” Mrs Trump said.

It’s already been turned into an internet meme and commentators have been comparing it to photographs of Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton.

But what does the picture say about the latest First Lady?

Photographs like these matter, says Prof Cara A Finnegan from the communications department at the University of Illinois, because they can tell you how a person in power views themselves.

“Images of presidents are important because presidents think images of themselves are important,” she says.

Donald Trump

While she thinks this is a better produced image than the first official portrait of President Donald Trump, comparisons to images from the Obama era are less favourable.

“Our expectations for these kinds of images are pretty high,” she says.

Mrs Trump, a former model, lives in New York with the couple’s 10-year-old son, Barron, and has so far had a less prominent role than previous first ladies have had.

Melania Trump

“In some ways they [the White House] are doing what they can do with what they have, which is someone who is a model, who built a business on her fame and the way that she looks,” says Prof Finnegan.

“The abstractness of that background, where she’s vaguely in the White House but you can’t really tell, that to me mirrors her own situation.

“For people who want to criticise her for that, they will be able to do that but for people who want to say, ‘Look, she’s the First Lady and she’s in the White House, leave her alone,’ they can do that too.”

Commentators have pointed out the stance Mrs Trump has adopted, where the First Lady has her arms folded.

“On the one hand it can communicate defensiveness,” says Prof Finnegan.

“But women in power generally don’t have a lot of body stances they can hold for themselves and communicate power.

“When you talk about images of women, talking about body language is really complicated because often our interpretations say more about us than of the women being pictured.”

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton next to her portrait in the East Room of the White House in 2004

Former First Lady Hillary Clinton appears to wear black, too, in her official portrait, unveiled in 2004

For Prof Nicole Dahmen from the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, “Melania Trump’s first official portrait embodies the excessive wealth and reality star celebrity of the Trump White House”.

She believes this photograph moves the administration “even further from the truth and substance of middle America”.

Many people have discussed the kinds of digital manipulation the image may have undergone.

“The obvious airbrushing in the photo can also be seen as a parallel to the Trump administration’s use of lies and ‘alternative facts’,” says Prof Dahmen.

“The portrait is a construction of reality – not actual reality.”

Donald and Melania Trump

The use of photo software also raises some issues for Prof Finnegan.

“As a woman and as a feminist, I’m not excited about the norms of beauty that any of these sorts of images communicate, especially to young women and girls,” she says.

“Anxiety about airbrushing and the inevitable link to fake news, I get less worked up about because photography historically has always been involved in debates about what’s real and what’s fake.

“If the argument is, ‘Look how fake the Trumps are compared to the Obamas, because the Obamas photographs were so authentic,’ that’s where I get uncomfortable because there are ways to select and frame images, regardless of whether you airbrush them, that can be very inauthentic.”

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