The momification of Michelle Obama

The next first lady is an accomplished lawyer. But with the media focused on her clothes and family, Bamalot is starting to look a lot like Camelot.

Published November 12, 2008 11:50AM (EST)

Oh, what a week, what happiness, what kvelling joy: In January, Barack Obama will become president of the United States, and along with our first black president, we will also get our first black first family. A troop -- perhaps three generations! -- of powerful broads. Plus a puppy of as-yet-indeterminate provenance! A family so young and beautiful that they took our breath away when they strode onstage in Grant Park on Nov. 4, looking at once completely different from any presidential pack this country has ever known, and like the single most sparkling, shiny embodiment of the American dream ever to park a U-Haul outside the executive residence.

So it's no wonder that many of us have caught a touch of the Camelot-it-is (or, as the New York Post dubbed it last week, "Bam-a-lot"). Here we are, oohing and aahing over what they'll be wearing, and what they'll be eating, what kind of dog they'll be getting, what bedrooms they'll be living in, and what schools they'll be attending. It feels better than good to sniff and snurfle through the Obamas' tastes and habits. How unexpectedly comforting to slough off our brittle chrysalis of presidential detachment and invest so completely and uncynically in the lives of these people. Who knew we had in us the capacity to fall for this kind of idealized Americana again? And even better, however naive and retro it may feel, the Obamas' presence on our national stage is anything but: They are progressivism made manifest. For the first time in American history, our leaders look not like those pallid forebears who have occupied seats of power since America was born, but like the historically disenfranchised and oppressed populations that built those seats of power to begin with.

But with progress comes inevitable regress, and in our stouthearted dash to fit this family into a comfortably familiar tableau, we have fallen back into other, far too familiar, cultural traps: you know, like forgetting everything we've learned in recent decades about female achievement and identity.

The majority of the coverage of Michelle Obama in the week since her husband was elected has centered on her clothes. Not just the firecracker of a dress she donned on Election Night, but on her personal style, and what she will wear to the Inaugural balls.

Then there have been the oceans of transition pieces, about the adjustments the family will have to make as they move to Washington. In Newsweek came news that Michelle has been consulting with her husband's former presidential opponent Hillary Clinton, talking not about politics or law but about how to raise children in the White House.

The Associated Press wondered what kind of first lady Michelle will be, and concludes, "the kind of first lady this country has not seen in decades." You mean, the kind with a high-powered job? No, "the mother of young children." True enough, and the AP story did include the fact that Michelle is known to be her husband's closest advisor. But it made sure to emphasize the campaign's assertions that "she is not interested in shaping policy or reserving a seat for herself at her husband's decision-making table. She prefers, at least for now, to focus on easing the transition for Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 -- getting them in new schools, settled and comfortable with a new way of life." Indeed, Michelle herself has been flogging the term "mom-in-chief" as the cheerily unthreatening title she'll assume when she gets to the White House.

It's a vision of her future that has been embraced by the New York Times, which published a piece about how the Obamas are "beginning to figure out how to become the first family of the United States" but did not make mention of the presumed end of Michelle's most recent job, at the University of Chicago Hospitals, from which she took a leave during the campaign. The story's only reference to the university was as the place where the Obama girls currently attend primary school.

While the story contained no specific acknowledgement of Michelle's long and varied career, it did go on to describe how, once she has settled her children into the White House, she will have to figure out "exactly what sort of first lady she wants to be. Although she dresses with unusual care -- in both designer clothing and off the rack styles she has become known for -- friends say she has only a certain amount of patience for the domestic arts. She is a get-it-done efficiently Rachael Ray type, they say, not given to elaborate Martha Stewart-like efforts." Hey, here's a crazy idea, but what if Michelle is a type of woman -- and therefore a type of first lady -- whose professional success has nothing to do with cooking or crafting?

I don't mean to suggest that I'm not as taken by the mommy and fashion stuff as everyone else. It's great that Michelle Obama is both a snazzy dresser and a terrific parent. Her solid, steely beauty, her innate sense of style and her obvious devotion to her children are among the many attractive things about her -- along with her humor, her capacity for self-deprecation, her cool confidence, her sense of self, her commitment to the community in which she grew up, her thorough and very polished education, her challenging and rigorous career choices, her good, strong, fiercely held views on America, race and politics, her protection of an identity outside of her husband's and how damn pretty she is.

Not all of these qualities will be easily transported to Washington,  and some of the most extraordinary of them -- the ones that set her apart from many of her predecessors in the East Wing -- are already falling victim to a nostalgic complacency about familial roles, and to an apparent commitment to re-creating Camelot with an African-American cast, but little modern tweaking of the role of wife and mother.

The New York Times is certainly not alone in its static view of what kinds of choices shape the role of first lady -- i.e., how will she dress, what domestic arts will she or won't she ply,  what "duties" will she assume on behalf of her husband?

Michelle Obama is a mom. And her girls are small. This kind of change will undoubtedly be extremely discombobulating for them, and they will require the attention of their parents. Michelle herself has been more than happy to tell people, most notably in a summer interview with Ebony, that her first responsibilities upon getting to Washington will be finding schools and making sure her daughters get comfortable in their new fishbowl, all invaluable responsibilities of a parent resituating his or her kids, a parent who in this case happens to be a mommy.

It's Michelle's job because Daddy is going to be the president, and he has to save the country and the world from an economic crisis and war, and so he might be too busy to come check out the new schools and decorate their rooms and help with the dog. But the fact is, he seems to be a pretty good dad, and I bet he will do some of that stuff anyway. What rankles is the smooth and unquestioning assumptions by the media that the fallback position is to assign all those duties to Michelle.

Prior to Hillary Clinton, we'd never had a first lady who had a post-graduate degree. Michelle Obama went to college at Princeton and law school at Harvard. She was a practicing lawyer at the Chicago firm Sidley Austin when she was assigned to mentor the summer associate who would become her husband. She was his mentor. And when Barack writes of first meeting her, in "The Audacity of Hope," he notes that "she was part of the intellectual property group and specialized in entertainment law ... Michelle was full of plans that day, on the fast track, with no time, she told me, for distractions -- especially men."

Later, Michelle's personal commitment to her childhood neighborhood led her to leave Sidley Austin and work for the city of Chicago, then to launch the youth mentorship program Public Allies. When Michelle cut back on work as a new mother, she was still ambitious and engaged enough in her professional life that she took on a community relations job at the University of Chicago, working to reach out from behind the school's cloistered walls to the working-class community in which she'd been raised. In 2006, Michelle Obama earned $273,618 from the University of Chicago Hospitals, where she was vice-president for community and external affairs, plus $51,200 as a salaried member of the board of directors for Treehouse Foods, a Wal-Mart supplier from which she resigned after her husband was critical of the anti-union mega-chain. Barack, on the other hand, earned $157,082 as a United States senator, plus loads more from his book royalties and their combined investments. At the point that her husband decided to run for president, Michelle was not working just to make ends meet; she had a career to which she was committed.

In all the worrying about how Sasha and Malia will adjust to having their lives turned upside down, in all the fretting about how Obama will move his Chicago-style shop to Washington, why is there so little curiosity about how Michelle will adjust to the loss of her own private, very successful, very high-profile and very independent identity? How will Michelle Obama feel as she becomes what she has long resisted -- an extension of her husband?

In one of the smartest pieces that has been written about the next first lady, Geraldine Brooks' profile of her in the October issue of More magazine, Brooks writes that while you can see Michelle's life as the quintessential modern woman's success story, the trajectory can also be read as a "depressingly retrograde narrative of stifling gender roles and frustrating trade-offs." In serious ways, Brooks writes, "it is her husband's career, his choices -- choices she has not always applauded -- that have shaped her life in the last decade."

This situation is not entirely unique. The battle to conform to wifely expectations was previously fought by Hillary Clinton, a woman who recently made a hell-bent run for the exact same job her husband held in the years that she was forced to choke on her health plan and write books about the White House cat. (So let's not pretend that the role of stifled icon might not take some independent women on a wacky psychological ride.)

But Michelle is in an even tighter bind, in part because of the legacy left her by Hillary and her detractors. Powerful couples must now tread as far as possible from the "two for one" talk, lest the female half get smacked with a nutcracker.

But Michelle's power is potentially scarier than Hillary's could ever have been. She is not simply a smart and powerful woman, but a smart and powerful black woman.

At the start of Barack's campaign, when America was talking about a female candidate for president, the way in which Michelle was discussed was as a Hillary counterpart: a thinker, a professional, a modern and independent woman.

But those very real and positive characterizations served to make her as discomfiting as Hillary had been 16 years earlier, at least to anyone who had a bone to pick with the Obama campaign. Maureen Dowd thought Michelle was emasculating because she hectored her husband about putting the butter away; Christopher Hitchens misconstrued and mischaracterized Michelle's undergraduate thesis on Princeton-educated blacks, suggesting that she was influenced by the black separatist movement. (Hitchens also managed to connect her to Louis Farrakhan in the space of two thoroughly insane and irresponsible sentences!) The most pernicious and inaccurate rumor bandied about had to do with a purported tape of Michelle using the word "whitey" during a Rainbow Coalition/PUSH conference that was also attended by Bill Clinton.

All of these imaginatively ghoulish impressions of Michelle were made possible by her real-life achievements: She had a career that made the equal division of labor in her home a necessity; she had an education and pedigree that meant neocon critics could pick apart her honors thesis; anxieties about her imagined conference remarks had heft only because it was plausible that this accomplished woman would be at a conference with Bill Clinton to begin with. What was even scarier was that Michelle was widely understood to be her husband's closest advisor and consigliere. The threat of Michelle Obama was built around her intellectual and professional competence, her personal power and insistence in the home and in the world that she have the same opportunities for success as a man.

But the day that Hillary Clinton dropped out of the race, the bar for conversation about Michelle dropped precipitously. Suddenly Fox News was calling her "Obama's baby mama," and Michelle was on "The View," jawing about her bargain dress and pantyhose, breakfast foods and childcare. It was back to cookie-recipe land, the antiquated universe from which she has not since escaped. And we understand why. The exoticism and difference of Obama's race was all the progress the American people could take in one election, conventional wisdom went. A threateningly competent woman might put them over the edge.

In her convention speech in Denver, which Michelle reportedly wrote and memorized a month in advance, so clearly did she understand the importance of nailing the Ignore-the-Harvard-Diploma-on-the-Wall message, Obama presented herself precisely as she needed to in order to be digested by the American people: as a daughter, a sister, a wife, a mother. And definitely not as a successful and independent American working woman.

She hit it out of the Pepsi Center with elegance and aplomb. And on one hand, how wonderful for all of us that she did, so that we now have this incredible woman ready to move her offices to the East Wing. But why have so many people who should know better so readily accepted this incomplete image of the future first lady? It is possible, I suppose, that some have forgotten that Michelle Obama is more than a pair of ovaries with a commitment to organic food and the sales at J. Crew. But there is also the distinct whiff of relief in the momification of Michelle, and in the regress to Camelot. It's as though the American media -- exhausted after the progressive exertions of having to be respectful and not misogynist about two women running for political office -- has loosened its belt and is relaxing back into a world in which all you have to do is write about what they wear and how they mother.

One thing that is crucial (and heartening) is that Barack at least has acknowledged that Michelle's challenges in these coming years may not be much fun for her. In "The Audacity of Hope," he describes the gradual tipping of the professional scales in his relationship with Michelle, as she allows him to become a distraction, and then a date, and then a husband and a father, at the same time that he is becoming a politician. At first, he writes, they were both "working hard," he as a civil rights lawyer and a professor, she for the city and at Public Allies. Then they had Malia, and "the strains in our relationship began to show."

When he launched his congressional run, Barack writes, "Michelle put up no pretense of being happy with the decision. My failure to clean up the kitchen suddenly became less endearing. Leaning down to kiss Michelle good-bye in the morning, all I would get was a peck on the cheek. By the time Sasha was born ... my wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained."

Barack continues, "No matter how liberated I liked to see myself as -- no matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners, and that her dreams and ambitions were as important as my own -- the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments. Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule. Meanwhile, she was the one who had to put her career on hold." Barack considers his dawning realization that in his wife, as in so many working women, there was a battle raging. "In her own mind, two visions of herself were at war with each other," he writes. "The desire to be the woman her mother had been, solid, dependable, making a home and always there for her kids, and the desire to excel in her profession, to make her mark on the world and realize all those plans she'd had on the very first day that we met."

In certain critical ways, Michelle Obama will come to stand in more prominently than anyone could have imagined for the shortcomings of feminism, as described by Linda Hirshman in her 2006 book "Get to Work," in which she argues that the weighting of domestic responsibilities toward the woman in a family handicaps her chances for professional and economic success. Obama has already said that one of the issues she plans to put front and center while in the White House is the impossible bind faced by working mothers. She knows the trade-offs and sacrifices all too well.

And now, she is in the unenviable yet deeply happy position of being a history-maker whose own balancing act allowed her husband the space to make his political career zip forward, his books sing, his daughters healthy and beautiful, and his campaign succeed. In having done all this, Michelle Obama wrought for herself a life (temporarily, at least) of playing second fiddle. Then again, did she have a choice?

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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2008 Elections Michelle Obama Motherhood