On Thursday, Michelle Obama and a group of other high-profile women visited 11 D.C.-area high schools to talk to teenagers about their futures. As I understand it, such events are usually called "lectures" or "speaking engagements." But Maria Puente of USA Today interprets what the first lady and her incredibly accomplished associates were doing a bit differently: "To all the varied (and unpaid) jobs of the first lady of the United States, Michelle Obama has lately added cheerleader-in-chief." Oh, of course. There were some women, there was a high school -- it was cheerleading! According to Puente, Obama "employed her pep-rally skills" during the visits, which is certainly the first I've heard of her having any. Wasn't she famously a huge nerd in her youth? Isn't that why we love her? (At least, why those of us who are also huge nerds do?)
Apparently, Puente's terminology didn't go over so well with the women involved, either. "I don't think it's so much a pep talk as it is sharing," Phylicia Rashad, one of the celebrities, said -- with, one hopes, a distinct "Are you effin' kidding me?" face. Obama explained what they were doing thusly: "Our job is share our stories, to make these kids understand that where we stand today is not an impossibility. Many of us have forged a path to some amazing things, and we want to share that with these young people." To which Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, added, "Be! Aggressive! B-E aggressive!" Or not.
Much has been written, here and elsewhere, about the myriad ways in which the media trivializes Michelle Obama's past successes and diverse pursuits as first lady, preferring to focus on her as an ordinary stay-at-home mom, a fashion icon, a "helpmeet" to hubby, a pair of arms, whatever. I won't belabor the point. (Much.) But seriously, a group of women including professional athletes and performers, the first lady, an astronaut and an army general get together, and they're cast as cheerleaders? With all due respect to the many cheerleaders who are themselves tremendous athletes, that's still a culturally loaded image, and what it's loaded with has squat to do with Michelle Obama. Sigh.