Thursday, 22 January 2009

Quick hit: Michelle Obama is a person too

When Barack Obama became president of the United States, and along with our first black president, American also got their first black first family.

But with progress comes inevitable regress, and in the dash to fit this family of darker hue into tidy boxes, the news media has fallen back into other, far too familiar, cultural traps: you know, like forgetting everything we've learned in recent decades about female achievement and identity.

So how about instead of focusing on what she is wearing how about we hear about her thorough and very polished education, her commitment to the community in which she grew up, her challenging and rigorous career choices, her good, strong, fiercely held views on America, race and politics, her protection of an identity outside of her husband's and how damn pretty she is.

Would that be just a little too much to ask?

17 comments:

Julie said...

I found the whole thing where they had to dance together in a raised circle while everyone watched and took photos very weird.

stargazer said...

i had a quick look at the live blogging of the inauguration at jezebel and was totally frustrated at the number of comments on clothes and fashion. ok, i'm not saying to ignore it altogether, but i would have thought there would be quite a bit more balance.

Giovanni said...

Mmmhh... I might have to disagree with this one. Of course they were going to talk about his achievement and her demeanour/appearance. It was him who got elected, no matter how instrumental she is to his success. And besides, yesterday was all about the trappings and the ceremony, not about substance. And did you happen to be struck as I was by the fawning commentary? How about during the first ball on CNN, when Campbell Brown interrupted somebody trying to make a point about the significance of the moment by saying, in her best schoolgirl voice, "Oh, I just want to see them dance!" My sense is that Americans really do suspend their critical faculties and all get behind the chief in a way that you only expect from the monarchies of old.

Michelle O got her well deserved praise when she talked at the convention, and will again whenever she does something that has a specific political import. But yesterday she was the Prince's date I'm afraid.

Julie said...

So if Hillary Clinton had won the media coverage of the couple would have mentioned Bill's haircut and outfit, but not his past achievements?

Danielle said...

I found the whole thing where they had to dance together in a raised circle while everyone watched and took photos very weird.

Oh, not that weird, surely? I see it a bit like a celebratory wedding first dance. I have to say, I've watched Beyonce sing Etta James' 'At Last' to them four times now and have sniffled every time. I am a sap. Of course, that song could probably make me cry if Tiny Tim was singing it, but with the added civil-rightsy context (at last! at last!), I am a complete lost cause.

Giovanni said...

So if Hillary Clinton had won the media coverage of the couple would have mentioned Bill's haircut and outfit, but not his past achievements?

It's be interesting to see how they'd treat the first dude, it really would - let's hope we get to find out soon. And obviously Bill Clinton is a special case. But what's-his-name Palin? I don't know that he'd rate much more than a decorative mention. Still, it's impossible to say until such time as it happens. But in the meantime I'd argue that on the day the people around the prez become entirely symbolic, hell, the prez himself does, so everyone's objectified in a sense (including the children, and regardless of gender).

As far as the outfit goes, you've got to admit men wear always the same thing, so other than "it's Armani" or "it's Ermenegildo Zegna" there isn't a whole lot you can say.

Lucy said...

@Giovanni: As an aside, I was reading a Georgette Heyer novel earlier today and musing on how much more colourful and entertaining the Inauguration would have been (and, hey, any major formal public event in Western society) if men's dress codes were more Regency and less...like they are.

(Regency, that is, in terms of colour and adornment, rather than specific outfit. Although I have a feeling that Barack Obama would totally rock a cravat, breeches, and long coat. I'm just sayin'.)

More on topic, it probably fits in somewhere that *every* woman except Michelle Obama was wearing, like the men, formal but standard suits. (And by "every woman" I mean "Dianne Feinstein and Hillary Clinton", but I don't remember seeing any others.) Which kind of implies that her role was *especially* decorative. I understand why that would be, but there's undertones about that I don't like. I just don't know how you balance it.

OTOH, focusing on her dress at the ball I can completely understand: balls are about dressing to be seen.

Giovanni said...

More on topic, it probably fits in somewhere that *every* woman except Michelle Obama was wearing, like the men, formal but standard suits

Here's what Hillary Clinton wore in 1993 and in 1997, which I think fits in with Michelle Obama's look (and Jackie O's way back then). Bottom line: both of them are intelligent and accomplished women who could have chosen to wear formal but standard suits. That they didn't may not be simply a passive surrender to the demands of the ceremonial tradition, but something that they actually embraced. We'd have to ask them.

Incidentally, the First Lady has the option of taking on a role in the American system that the spouses of politicians in other countries (males of females) simply don't have. Clinton got feisty with it in 1993, and was brought back down to earth with a thump (ended up having to humiliate herself and serve tea to expiate, didn't she?). How Mrs. Obama deals with it will be most interesting.

Carol said...

By taking on a "role" do you mean that of first Lady?

I don't like that system at all. It means people elect a family rather than elect a president. I'm glad the countries I've lived in put far less focus on the spouse of the leader.

Watched the speech and some thoughtful Al Jazeera analysis of it yesterday. Haven't watched all the other over the top all dancing, singing and marching stuff. There's been far too much media coverage of it all for me. I got really turned off by the hype of this new Mesaiah.

Danielle said...

American culture is a lot more... enthusiastic than ours, I think. While I can often find that really tiresome (just. stop. talking!), I think it can also be endearing. And it's sweet that so many people - some of them hugely marginalised - feel included in this big-assed celebration. I don't begrudge them that.

Like I said: I'm a sap. :)

Julie said...

I am a secret fans of balls and dressing up too, I guess it just grates that here's this amazing woman and she's just an accessory in this context :-(

Oh, and I find first dances weird in the wedding context too, but that's probably more to do with the fact I don't like being centre of attention like that myself, and thus feel uncomfortable watching it forced on others too.

Carol said...

Danielle, my tipping point, when I started moves to avoid a lot of the inaugural stuff on TV, was watching John Campbell on NZ's TV3 introduce his programme on Monday night. He was positively gushing about and in awe of the centre of US power and all its trappings. He promised to report nightly from there. What happened to the critical liberal-leftie journalist?

I switched to the bloody drama unfolding on Shortland Street.

It seemed to me that it wasn't only Americans who were being "enthusiastic" about it all.

But all that dressing up, balls, fashion, hyped up emotion, just doesn't interest me.

Shortland Street, however, has continued to hold my interest this week.

Danielle said...

John Campbell is way more puff-piecey than he used to be. I don't know what happened there.

It is depressing that Michelle Obama is an accessory... but she's way *less* of an accessory than First Ladies used to be, I suppose...? Plus everyone seemed pretty damned thrilled to see Clinton at the State Department. So that's cheering.

Anyway, I love frocks *and* dancing *and* getting rid of Bush and Cheney *and* closing Guantanamo *and* removing warrantless wiretapping, so I'm pretty 'enthused' myself. Heh.

Giovanni said...

I am a secret fans of balls and dressing up too, I guess it just grates that here's this amazing woman and she's just an accessory in this context :-(

At the cost of belabouring the point: she wasn't the one who got elected. If she was there at all, it could only be as an accessory. When she actually participated in the process, for instance by blowing the roof off the convention centre with her speech on opening day, I think she received due consideration.

But mostly I'm interested in your use of the phrase "forced on her", I think it makes the kind of assumptions that you often critique in your writing.

Carol said...

Oh I did ecstaticaly (sp?) celebrate the end of Bush an am ecstatic about the closing of Guantanamo. Do we know yet whether all that surveillance and anti-terror laws, homeland security etc is going to be revoked?

I am unhappy that Obama is taking a line fairly close to Bush on Palestine-Israel, and marginalising Hamas. But pleased that he's calling for the opening of Gaza borders.

I did watch Obama's speech online, but wasn't overly ecstatic about it, tho it had some good points.

I did feel a little emotional with the shots of teary-eyed African American people - it is a very historic moment.

I enjoyed the analsyis on Al Jazeera, when I woke up, plus some of the post-speech live coverage - I was surprised that Naomi Klein is a lot younger than I had imagined, and did tend to agree with her that Obama was probably still pro-neoliberal policies.

I am also pleased that Obam, Clinto and her team are talking diplomacy first.

Julie said...

On the "forced on her" point - it's an expectation that they do it, whether they want to or not, isn't it? Is there any real ability for the President or the First Lady/Gentleman to say no? Yeah, I probably am projecting my issues though ;-)

Giovanni said...

Is there any real ability for the President or the First Lady/Gentleman to say no?

On the one hand the family has to appear by Barack's side on certain occasions, and certainly during the inauguration - they've got no choice there. But the manner in which they decide to appear is up to them to a large extent, and there's no question to my mind that throughout the campaign and since the election the 'beautiful family' has been a key part of Obama's appeal. Think of the behind the scene photoshoots we've been fed during the convention, then again on election night and then again during the inauguration - those were very carefully orchestrated. And Michelle's image has been too. Plus as you note when you comment on Clinton and Feinstein's choice of wardrobe, Michelle could have dressed a lot more conservatively and denied that part of her allure. But she didn't, and I'm in no way criticising her for it. She's conscious that as well as being a very accomplished person she's one classy looking and beautiful woman - why should she hide it on such an occasion, and why should the media not comment on it?