Nothing speaks more to our country’s tortured views on gender, marriage and power than the reception of the recently released book The Obamas. Jodi Kantor’s biography of the first couple has set off a firestorm of complaints about the accuracy of events described in the book and a debate about the author’s claim of insight into her primary characters. At the source of these controversies lies the unresolved tension of a culture that expects women to achieve as highly as men but first ladies to take a back seat to their presidents.
Sales of political books rise and fall on the same sensational rhythms as our political media, so it’s not surprising that the marketing buzz leads with dramatic stories about friction between the first couple—especially Michelle—and their staff. The most repeated one tells of an alleged blowup by former press secretary Robert Gibbs after being admonished by senior adviser Valerie Jarrett, who was reportedly displeased with his response to a story about claims by French first lady Carla Bruni-Sarkozy that Michelle said living in the White House was “hell.” In response to media noise about this incident, the White House press shop aggressively dismissed any hint of tension in the administration.
Voters don’t expect calm to prevail in the pressure cooker of politics, and it’s not news to anyone that West Wing staffers sometimes lose their tempers or use foul language. Many first ladies have been accused of overstepping acceptable boundaries in finding a comfortable position in the White House. So the fact that a defense of Michelle Obama’s character feels necessary in the face of such minor skirmishes is testament to cultural contradictions and collective anxieties about recent trends in professional identities, in marriage and in limits we place on women in power. In all these areas, our accomplished first lady—with her Ivy League degrees and professional achievements—is caught between nostalgia and how we actually live today.
Despite some reports, The Obamas paints a portrait of a sophisticated woman whose educated opinions inform her aspirations and her family’s new role. So Michelle’s need to reject the “angry black woman” mantle on CBS This Morning made women everywhere wince with frustrated familiarity. African-American women bear a unique burden, but strong professional women of all races are at risk of being classified as angry, humorless or just plain bitchy. Studies have shown that men who get angry are often rewarded in their career, while women who express anger tend to be penalized. Add in a slew of stories claiming that women have benefited from the economic downturn at the expense of men, and the result is exacerbated gender tensions in a time of job scarcity. Combined with statistics about greater attendance and graduation rates for women in higher education, a story is emerging of a decline in men’s pre-eminent position in society. Although reality does not bear out this picture, there’s a growing backlash against real and perceived female empowerment that finds easy expression in criticism of our first lady.
At the same time, everything about marriage is being questioned. Marriage equality appears increasingly inevitable, while straight marriage is on the decline. A recent Pew poll showed that 43 percent of Gen Xers believe marriage is becoming obsolete. New emphasis on professional achievement for women means that when straight people marry, reasons for coupling and roles within marriage are changing. Yet, because marriage is a beacon of familiarity in a chaotic world, it remains core to how we evaluate our leaders. The Republican primary has been full of stories about Herman Cain’s infidelities, Newt Gingrich’s string of divorces and Michele Bachmann’s admitted submission to her enigmatic husband, Marcus. In this tempest, Kantor portrays the Obamas’ marriage as filled with mutual respect and joy, but one that has had to transform from a partnership of equals to one that satisfies a media-imposed ideal. Men are now lauded for choosing partners who are their intellectual match. But powerful first ladies are still portrayed as intrusive and their husbands as henpecked.
In an effort to fit Michelle’s role into a traditional profile, the media constantly remind us that her work is on presumably soft subjects, primarily her hallmark cause to end childhood obesity. Attacks from the right against the first lady’s pursuit of that goal have been downright misogynistic. Rush Limbaugh claimed she is a poor messenger for healthy eating because she could not be a swimsuit model, and Representative Jim Sensenbrenner said the first lady has no business lecturing on healthy eating with her own “large posterior.” Slurs aside, what critics miss is that this campaign is not aimed at soft targets. The food and beverage industry is a powerful lobbying force, spending nearly $16.3 million in the 2008 cycle to defeat initiatives—like a “soda tax” and limits on aggressive advertising aimed at kids—that would encourage a healthier diet and thus cut into its massive profits. To tackle childhood obesity, we’ll have to confront complicated issues of race, class, entrenched corporate power and access to healthy food. In a move that illustrates her shrewd political mind and her commitment and compassion, this first lady found an unimpeachable signature issue that could be fundamentally transformative and yet is still considered within bounds for her position.
The Obamas paints a hopeful portrait of a modern marriage that has withstood the adversity that comes with the most powerful office in the world. Michelle Obama is depicted as a woman initially reluctant to enter public life but who, as Kantor’s narrative progresses, uses her intellect and moral compass to become both a savvy politician and an adept advocate for her causes. The result is more than an insightful biography of one of the most important couples of our time; it is a parable for where we stand as a country in our expectation of gender roles and partnership in a changing world.