Michelle Obama, "feminist nightmare"? How lazy journalism hurts feminism

Politico's narrow-minded critique was just the latest example. When can we stop talking about who's a bad feminist?

Published November 26, 2013 12:00AM (EST)

Michelle Obama has some nerve dictating her own priorities as the first lady of the United States. At least, that’s what Michelle Cottle reveals in a rankly condescending piece of shallow provocation for Politico. According to the headline, the first lady is a “feminist nightmare” because she is not adhering to the Feminist Mandates, these forever unspoken but rigid mandates for what a feminist is and how “she” should be. Clearly, in addition to first lady, she must also be known as the first feminist and the first feminist better not step out of line.

Cottle liberally peppers her article with passive-aggressive barbs about Obama’s elite education, as if to say, “Look how this Ivy League-educated woman is wasting her feminist potential.” Then there are the snide comments about Obama in “full mom mode,” heretically telling students to do well in school and focusing on keeping children active as part of a measure to address the significant childhood obesity problem in the United States.

The shame here is clear: Motherhood, fitness and early education are beneath feminists. Cottle further trivializes Obama’s healthy eating initiatives as “gardening.” She gleefully references Obama’s fashion choices and toned arms. Heaven forbid a woman in the most glaring of public eyes pay attention to her appearance. Cottle also notes that East Wing officials have made it clear that Michelle Obama “will focus on young people, not policy,” as if focusing on young people isn’t a political choice.

Cottle’s sad excuse of an article was illuminating in one way. I learned that feminists have supposedly been wringing their hands over Obama’s tenure as first lady because she hasn’t and won’t become an “edgier, more activist first lady.” I was not heretofore aware feminists were disappointed in Obama and how she chooses to live her life. I was not aware that Obama was not an activist. Now I know.

But let’s be frank. The thinking espoused in Cottle’s piece is not so much a feminist reaction to Michelle Obama’s tenure as first lady as it is a very specific white feminist reaction. It is a reaction that suggests that a feminist’s true concerns should be political and actionable through policy initiatives that further a white feminist agenda. It is a reaction that willfully ignores how feminist and groundbreaking and necessary it is to see a black woman raising her own children and moving through the world the way Michelle Obama does. As Tami Winfrey Harris observes, for Clutch, “I have heard from many black women, including feminist ones, who are delighted to see an African-American woman publicly celebrated in ways that we commonly are not. Michelle Obama is – refreshingly for many of us – lauded for being nurturing, beautiful and stylish as well as whip smart, athletic and strong.”

Women so often face impossible choices in life, in work, in feminism. We are either “independent and empowered” or we’re tools of the patriarchy. For black women, our choices may seem even more impossible because there are so many persistent, damaging cultural tropes about black women. When we don’t adhere to these tropes, the world does not know what to make of us. There is no middle ground or room for women to make the choices that best suit our lives without those choices being endlessly scrutinized and assessed on an arbitrary scale of “good feminism.” This dilemma is not new but its longevity is certainly frustrating. That we can’t seem to have more complex feminist conversations beyond whether or not we’re doing feminism well is frustrating.

It’s also important to consider why an article like this was even written and will certainly be written again and again. Time and again, lazy journalism reveals that in the sphere of public intellectualism, we can only conceive of feminism as a monolith, an unyielding set of principles about how women in the public sphere should think and act. Feminism remains the go-to topic for inflaming passions and garnering clicks in the online economy. Feminism is the always-reliable narrative frame for explaining why women are making the wrong choices about their bodies, their livelihoods, their children or any other matter.

This lazy journalism is what allows feminism to become “the F word,” with prominent women doing their best to distance themselves from feminism because who wants to be associated with something so rigid and narrow and humorless as the feminism we all too often read about?  We get trapped in pointless conversations and continue to lose sight of what feminism, broadly, is, and what the work of feminism, at its best, should do. We forget that feminism is not one mode of thinking. It never has been nor should it be.

I have to believe we can inspire better, more complex and inclusive feminist conversations and that we can, for example, examine Michelle Obama’s legacy, the good and the bad of it, without pedantically referring to her as a “feminist nightmare.”

By Roxane Gay

Roxane Gay's writing has appeared in Best American Short Stories 2012, Oxford American, the Rumpus, the Wall Street Journal and many other publications

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Feminism Feminist Nightmare Michelle Obama Politico