Somebody at Channel 13, New York’s liberal-biased public-television channel, must have been asleep at the switch when the station recently broadcast the politically tinged rom-com Ladies in Black. It’s a movie about fashion, femininity, and courage and consequently the first film release that acknowledges Melania Trump and her unique role as our country’s first immigrant first lady since Louisa Adams, the wife of John Quincy Adams.
The American premiere of Ladies in Black, a 2018 Australian film by Bruce Beresford that never opened in U.S. theaters, matched public television’s frequent emphasis on immigrant experience and female empowerment. Based on Australian writer Madeleine St. John’s 1993 novel about saleswomen working at Goode’s high-end clothes emporium in 1950s Sydney, it prominently features a character — Slovenian refugee and fashion habitué Magda, played by Julia Ormond — who brings kindliness, self-assurance, and taste to her new country, just as Melania Trump has distinctly shown. In this context, Magda edges past public television’s stubborn liberal partisanship to reflect the emigrant optimism and style that has been marginalized by mainstream media.
Programming this film had to be an accident, given the political preferences of the cultural gatekeepers in left-of-Lenin New York. But it’s a happy accident that counters the deification of former first lady Michelle Obama in Netflix’s new documentary memoir Becoming, a lesser, openly propagandistic film made, strangely, in an aggressive PBS mode.
The contrast of these two movies pinpoints the media’s failure to be fair and balanced about these two first ladies.
It is the fashion-world setting of Ladies in Black, emphasizing presentation and etiquette as social principles, that makes the film’s Magda/Melania parallels so significant. St. John’s shopwomen professionally demonstrate Australia’s immigrant-nation cultural aspirations — their upmarket uniforms do not define or confine them — while also working out self-expression and romantic impulses.
Beresford, who directed Driving Miss Daisy, Crimes of the Heart, and Breaker Morant, movies that portrayed eccentrics inhabiting society’s borders, neither sentimentalizes these women’s struggles nor makes them paragons of identity politics. Magda’s outsider status awes her co-workers. They’re fascinated by her decorum, the disciplined efforts to adjust her cultural heritage to the needs of her new home after surviving European turmoil. Ormond’s past career as a ’90s Hollywood aspirant inflects this role, as does her middle-aged hauteur and full-bosomed solidity. She perfectly matches St. John’s description of the “kind of woman who always got what she wanted. . . . No one could even try to pronounce her frightful Continental surname.” Although Magda is physically different from Melania’s poised, sylph-like movements, her reserve and Eastern European accent mystify the uncouth, English-speaking Aussies. Her chic conveys depth of personality — exactly what our media have simply ignored about Melania Knavs Trump.
In The Dressmaker (2015) by Jocelyn Moorhouse and P. J. Hogan, Kate Winslet played a fashion designer who returns to her rural Australian hometown and confronts its backward sensibility. Ladies in Black has a similar effect, rectifying the cultural omissions of our supposedly enlightened female-empowered culture. Magda’s mentorship to shopgirl Lisa (Angourie Rice) resembles the traditional first-lady advisory role; she responds personally to Lisa’s literary interests, yearning for sophistication, and passion for a particular high-style frock. Their friendship resonates as a reversal of Melania’s first-lady relationship with the world — the traditionally sociable, maternalized, non-policy connection that was cut short by the media ever since her elegant Inauguration Day stride down Pennsylvania Avenue in the powder-blue outfit by Ralph Lauren Collection that rightfully should have reset the world’s fashion barometer.
Harper’s Bazaar described Melania’s milestone this way:
The slim-cut mock turtleneck dress and cropped cutaway jacket — with tonal suede gloves, pumps, and a clutch handbag to match — constituted a nod to Jackie Kennedy’s similarly ladylike ensemble during John F. Kennedy’s 1961 Inauguration. The choice seemed to bespeak the First Lady’s implicit declaration of her commitment to this new, dignified, perhaps unexpected position she now assumes — to serving a nation that is not natively hers but which it is now her charge to represent before the world.
A measure of the fashion media’s deranged defiance of Melania can be found in Netflix’s Becoming, a blatant hagiography. Netflix promotes Becoming as an instruction manual and Michelle Obama as an identity-politics role model — as Oprah 2.0 and with Gayle King in tow. This cliché-spouting Michelle talks past her refusal to wear an Afro hairstyle; the bourgie image she projects denies everything that fashion statement represents.
Ladies in Black proves we have to project onto Melania simply because the media refuse to acknowledge her presence except negatively. “Female networks” of feminism in film, television, the press, and lecture circuits are missing when it comes to the way Melania is ostracized. The mania to promote Michelle Obama even into a new presidential administration is evidence of despondency over the peaceful transfer of power and its disruption of the media’s command of fashion. It is Melania’s background in fashion (“She’s a beauty and that’s all there is to it,” designer Manolo Blahnik boldly declared) that exposes the left media’s attempt to convert political figure Michelle into a dubious fashion icon. Netflix’s Becoming does not evidence taste or even fairness. Instead, it suggests the latest step in private enterprise becoming state media.