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.