Someday we’ll get beyond obsessing about first ladies–and by “we” I mean the sort of journalists who use “we” to mean “the vast majority of Americans” when it is usually just themselves and their friends. Meanwhile, Michelle Obama is getting more bouquets from the media than any woman in public life since Mother Teresa. Her clothes, her looks, her height (six feet!), her curves, her delightful combination of warmth, simplicity, charm, dignity, humor and smarts. Gone are the days when National Review put her on the cover as “Mrs. Grievance,” when Maureen Dowd wondered aloud if Michelle’s wifely jokes about Barack’s foibles were “emasculating” and when Christopher Hitchens wrote in Slate that her undergraduate thesis, “Princeton Educated Blacks and the Black Community,” was not “written in any known language” and used it to tie her to Louis Farrakhan, a pair of African dictators and the Holocaust. Remember how Obama supporters fumed about that New Yorker cover cartoon of Barack as an Al Qaeda terrorist and Michelle as a rifle-toting Black Panther? People wouldn’t get that it was satire! Seems pretty silly now, doesn’t it? Yesterday’s fist-bumping radical is today’s mom in chief.
Well, not quite. After all, Michelle Obama is still black, although only wingnuts and black people mention it–most whites are much too polite. And she’s a woman, too, which always makes for trouble. So while half the country swoons over her Vogue cover and her community service in schools and homeless shelters, there are those who feel just a little bit threatened. There are her bare arms, for example–they have muscles! “In the taxi,” Dowd confided in a recent column, “when I asked David Brooks about her amazing arms, he indicated it was time for her to cover up. ‘She’s made her point,’ he said. ‘Now she should put away Thunder and Lightning.'” Brooks didn’t like “the V-neck sleeveless, eggplant dress” she wore to Barack’s address to Congress, either. A supersmart black woman who’s also fashionable and fit–terrifying.
And then there’s this developing story line–call it the Goldilocks and the Three Bears syndrome. Hillary Clinton was too ambitious; Laura Bush (who?) was too retro; but Michelle has the woman thing just right. As David Samuels writes in New York magazine:
There are clear limits to Michelle’s ambition. She went to excellent schools, got decent grades, stayed away from too much intellectual heavy lifting, and held a series of practical, modestly salaried jobs while accommodating her husband’s wilder dreams and raising two lovely daughters. In this, she is a more practical role model for young women than Hillary Clinton, blending her calculations about family and career with an expectation of normal personal happiness.
Would you like some manly condescension with that factual misinformation, ladies? By all means, avoid “too much intellectual heavy lifting”! If Samuels regards $273,618–Michelle Obama’s salary in her last year as head of community affairs for the University of Chicago Hospitals–as modest, he must be the richest magazine journalist in the world. Michelle Obama, who made almost twice as much as her husband the senator, earned more than 99 percent of the population, and 98 percent of men. Moreover, she did so while raising two small children, often without her husband, who was off legislating in Springfield and Washington. That Samuels, like a 1950s home ec teacher, advises “young women” to keep their ambitions “practical” if they want to be happy shows just how disturbing Hillary Clinton–or rather the nightmare fantasy of Hillary Clinton–has been to certain male psyches. Because what if women wanted to be the ones with the wild dreams? What if they wanted men to be the enablers and nurturers? That would be awful.
Just after the election Rebecca Traister wrote a terrific piece in Salon lamenting the “momification” of Michelle Obama. Probably it was inevitable: “In part because of the legacy left her by Hillary and her detractors,” Traister observed, “powerful couples must now tread as far as possible from the ‘two for one’ talk, lest the female half get smacked with a nutcracker.” Besides, there was that Angry Black Woman image to banish. It might have been politically necessary, and for all I know Michelle Obama is having the time of her life–unlike most professional women who take (let’s hope) eight years off, she doesn’t have to worry about the cost to her career. Some days I think just being a highly visible admirable black woman is a social cause all by itself, given how little of that side of black life most white Americans see. Still, there’s something depressing about the joy and relief with which the high-end media have greeted Michelle’s makeover from accomplished professional and outspoken social critic to new-traditionalist homebody. They’re not only not ready for Hillary Clinton, they’re apparently not even ready for Eleanor Roosevelt.
In the American Prospect, Dana Goldstein recently argued that being first lady should be treated like the job it is and awarded a salary. Michelle is “a public face of the Obama administration,” working behind the scenes to rally support for her husband’s programs–and she endures a schedule of ceremonial duties and photo ops that would put most women on Prozac and that are not optional. She can’t decide to skip dinner with the Democratic chairmen of Congressional committees and watch TV with the girls instead. If first ladies were paid–Goldstein suggests that the money could come from lowering the president’s $400,000 salary–we might respect them more.
Meanwhile, we should be counting ourselves lucky that Michelle Obama is working for free and let her wear whatever she wants.