Michelle Obama, bit by bit

You can't just take the First Lady apart to find out how she works.

By Kate Harding

Published February 19, 2009 6:52PM (EST)

"It's like a mass public vivisection where we project all of our hopes, dreams, fears, neuroses and psychoses on to one person," says Michelle Obama Watch founder Gina McCauley of our obsession with the first lady's appearance. If you think McCauley's overstating the matter, please take a moment to read this article, in which Kate Holmquist of the Irish Times declares that Michelle has actually created a new erogenous zone for our era: "Bold, strong, sleek, buff arms." Writes Holmquist, "Pleasing her man by appearing feminine and frail is not a look that Michelle Obama pursues, or would even consider. Yet, her arms aren't too muscular; they're within the boundaries of acceptable female strength. No steroids here, just the discipline for early morning work-outs. Her arms make her beautiful, rather than overly powerful, reassuring us that, as a woman, Michelle is stalwart and loyal to the leader of the Western world and not wanting to undermine or replace him." I'm sorry, were we talking about her arms or her astrological chart? What was that McCauley was saying about projection?

In a deliciously snarky analysis of the media's fervor over "Michelle Obama, Style Icon," Zoe Williams at The New Statesman writes, "So much is riding on her as the load-bearing wall for the weight of Barack's racial symbolism -- she is regarded so seriously as the keeper of the message -- that the style media are trying to reclaim territory they know they've already lost. She's so stylish, she ought to be theirs." But then, having appropriated her, they find themselves unable to make such a complex, independent woman fit the usual parameters of a fashion maven -- and the rest of us don't know quite what to make of her, either.  "These style-appreciators seem to be lauding her for her sophisticated tastes, but are in fact saying 'she's a bit like a bloke'. The conservative press deals with its unease ('Is she a woman or a whole person? So hard to say!') by making her sound like a transvestite. And the liberal press covers its confusion ('Is she a feminist pioneer? Or just a woman?') by getting all sociological on her ass every time she wears a dress." Ha ha ha -- hey wait a minute, that last one stung a little.

Both McCauley and Williams conclude that as far as the first lady herself is concerned, this isn't really so concerning. As McCauley puts it, "Just because the nation is obsessed with what Obama wears doesn't mean she has to join us in our obsession by playing the role of national dress-up doll." What's scary is how much the rest of us seem to want to cast her in it, presumably because writing and reading a zillion separate articles on her clothes, arms, skin, butt and hair is a lot easier than dealing with that "whole person" thing. Too bad you can't just take a human being apart to find out how she works.

Kate Harding

Kate Harding is the author of Asking For It: The Alarming Rise of Rape Culture--and What We Can Do About It, available from Da Capo Press in August 2015. Previously, she collaborated with Anna Holmes, Amanda Hess, and a cast of thousands on The Book of Jezebel, and with Marianne Kirby on Lessons from the Fat-o-Sphere. You might also remember her as the founding editor of Shapely Prose (2007-2010). Kate's essays have appeared in the anthologies Madonna & Me, Yes Means Yes, Feed Me, and Airmail: Women of Letters. She holds an M.F.A. in fiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and a B.A. in English from University of Toronto, and is currently at work on a Ph.D. in creative writing from Bath Spa University

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