The day after Inauguration, I heard a co-worker talking about the day’s events on the phone with her friend. Her end of the conversation went something like this:
“I know, but did you see how Michelle Obama rolled her eyes at John Boehner? Can you believe that? …Well yeah, but she should have known there would be cameras on her. Or maybe she knew and just didn’t care.”
Overhearing this conversation, it took quite a bit of self-restraint not to roll my own eyes. Why, on the day after a presidential inauguration—one, mind you, filled with plenty of charged rhetoric and quite a few political surprises—did my co-worker (along with a fair portion of the media) have nothing better to gossip about than Michelle Obama’s eye-rolls? Not to mention her new haircut, her choice of a J Crew belt, her walk in stilettos along Pennsylvania Avenue…you get the idea. Why is it so scandalous when a woman dares to be a little standoffish to a man she probably happens not to like very much? (And in front of a camera too…what was she thinking?!) Why is it that First Ladies are expected to always be flawless and neutral hostesses, never betraying oh, I don’t know, actual opinions?
Now before I go any further I must admit: I love Michelle Obama. I love her so much that in the 2008 election I ditched my long-distance boyfriend who was in town just to visit me to go hear her speak. I, too, think she has a great sense of style and some super hot arms. I, too, love how protective she is of her children, how genuinely in love she seems to be with her husband, how dedicated she is to the cause of child obesity. I toured the White House gardens a few months back and had a mini freak out when I reached Mrs. Obama’s vegetable garden—So many delicious, local veggies! So healthy! So green! Go Michelle!
Which is all to say: I get it. First Ladies have long been the subject of fascination in American culture. Michelle Obama follows in the footsteps of Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy, and many others who have won the hearts of Americans everywhere. Michelle is an amazing, passionate, intelligent, and sophisticated woman. And the public sees it too—73% of Americans approve of the way she is handling her job, according to a recent CNN poll.
When it comes down to it, I suppose what frustrates me is not the way Michelle Obama is handling her job, but rather the parameters of the job itself. Michelle Obama does important work, but above all else it is neutral work. Who doesn’t believe children ought to be healthy? Who doesn’t think military families deserve support? In fact, First Ladies have almost always pursued politically-neutral campaigns in office. One notable exception is Hillary Clinton, who was a vocal advocate for health care reform during her husband’s presidency. However, Hillary paid a high price for her outspokenness—the media deemed her power-hungry and meddling, routinely criticizing her performance in office.
To me, there is a clear connection between the gendered nature of the First Lady position and the expectation of its objectivity. The fact remains that some of the most pressing issues our society faces—the environment, international intervention policies, and the American wealth/class divide, to name just a few—are not neutral. They are issues that are controversial and divisive. But despite their contentious status (or perhaps because of it), these issues warrant our attention and discussion. If Hillary had won the Democratic Primary instead of Barack, do you think Bill Clinton would be shying away from such discussions?
Now, of course the answer isn’t that simple. A recent article in the Washington Post illustrates the feminist divide over the self-proclaimed “Mom-in-chief”’s job performance, particularly among white feminists and feminists of color. As many minority women have articulated, and rightfully so, there’s nothing wrong with being a champion of families and motherhood, particularly in a society where black women have often been stereotyped as lacking femininity and because of class barriers have been denied the privilege of choosing to stay at home with their children. Essentially, Michelle Obama’s feminist identity does not exist in a vacuum. It would be wrong to critique her choices as First Lady without first acknowledging the other identities and oppressions in her life.
Still, I take issue less with the way Michelle Obama chooses to handle with her position as I do with the way the media chooses to portray and limit her agency. I’m tired of a country where First Ladies can only tackle problems that are politically convenient. I’m tired of a media force where slideshows of Mrs. Obama’s fashion tastes take precedence over stories about her actual accomplishments (of which there are many). And mostly, I’m tired of a society where women are criticized for rolling their eyes at men who most likely deserve it.
Written by Sarah Mintz