Be progressive! B-E progressive!

USA Today calls Michelle Obama the "Cheerleader-in-chief."

Published March 20, 2009 2:15PM (EDT)

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.


By 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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