The first gams make their debut

Michelle Obama wears shorts in August, and the media doesn't even wait for "shock and outrage" before reporting it


Kate Harding
August 20, 2009 5:21PM (UTC)

Move over, Thunder and Lightning -- Shelly O's got a whole new set of limbs capturing the nation's attention! You two are lucky "the right to bare legs" isn't a pun; if it were, the first lady's decision to wear shorts would undoubtedly get even more headlines than it has already, eclipsing your fame entirely.

That's right: Michelle Obama wore shorts. In August. To the Grand Canyon. Which is in Arizona. Which is really, really, really hot. And which is also in the United States, where it's been common for women to wear shorts in public for decades. Not seeing the news angle? Neither is any other thinking person, but that didn't stop outlets from the L.A. Times to "The Today Show" (the segment is featured below) from discussing the American people's ostensibly conflicted reaction (unfortunately, most journalists haven't been able to locate an American person willing to express an opinion other than, "Seriously?") or the Huffington Post from asking readers: "Does Michelle Obama have the right to bare legs?" (Oh, I guess the lack of actual pun there isn't stopping anyone. Sorry, Thunder and Lightning.) My favorite part of that poll is that the pro-shorts answer is, "Absolutely! It's so modern!" Shorts. In August. "Modern." Did Peggy Olson sneak in and write that copy? Or Laura Ingalls Wilder, maybe?

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Kate Dailey at Newsweek's The Human Condition has written a fabulous analysis of why a few people might have fabricated the whole "controversy" as an excuse to discuss Obama's body, fashion choices and sense of decorum yet again: "It's entirely possible that 'some in the media' were a little shocked to see Obama wearing shorts and wanted to report on it. August is a slow news month, and covering people who are actually shocked and outraged about health care can only fill so many minutes in the Twitterfied news cycle." Even so, why would journalists invent a bunch of shocked and outraged citizens out of whole cloth? "Because if there's not controversy, it's just the American public gawking at a woman's form ... to ogle the first lady on national TV requires a bit of news-related window dressing." Oh, Kate Dailey, you make me swoon.

To be fair, the original pushers of the "Shorts are scandalous!" meme probably didn't think they were authoring an imaginary controversy,  so much as anticipating an inevitable one. Given all the attention paid to Michelle Obama's arms and Hillary Clinton's "cleavage," it probably seemed like a safe assumption that someone, somewhere would go apeshit about the first lady's semi-naked legs. Unfortunately, even with "the Twitterfied news cycle" putting pressure on journalists, it's still usually best to wait for news to happen before reporting on it.

And beyond that, even if someone, somewhere, truly was offended by Obama's shorts, that still wouldn't make it news. A certain percentage of Americans are offended by the Obama family's very existence, and that faction is getting entirely too much coverage from reputable news outlets these days. A bunch of whackjobs claim the president isn't a U.S. citizen, or that he wants to kill your grandma (who probably doesn't care for the first lady's shorts at all), and the media keeps repeating their outlandish claims until more people begin to believe they're true. There will always be ill-informed cranks claiming to represent the "other side" of a "debate" in a country where 39 percent of people "want government to stay out of Medicare" and 6 percent of Birthers apparently base their concerns on a belief that Hawaii is not a state. That doesn't mean there's any newsworthy controversy about the facts; it just means a lot of people are ignorant and hate the president.

As ludicrous nontroversies go, then, I suppose I'll take a fashion-related one over one where treating the "other side" as credible involves promoting falsehoods that muddy the public's understanding of serious, complicated issues like healthcare reform. But still, shorts? In August? In Arizona? Really? Sigh. I guess all we can do now is wait for Maureen Dowd to name the first gams.

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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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