Does Michelle Obama have a feminist problem?

Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy

I’m hesitant to join in the debate about Michelle Obama’s feminist problem. Politico‘s Michelle Cottle’s article “Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama became a feminist nightmare” piqued the ire of many feminist thinkers including Amanda Marcotte, Kate Dries, and Melissa Harris-Perry have all shot down Cottle’s arguments – the consensus being that the author did not capture the debate accurately, nor does she appreciate the issue of race. Social media Websites were also bombarded with posts from feminists who echoed Cottle’s critics who did not like Cottle’s take on Obama and feminism.

All these questions and debates highlight just how difficult it is to have discussions of race and gender – two topics that can still bring dinner conversations to a screeching halt. The first lady is in an interesting position because being the first African-American first lady comes with some unfair burdens and expectations. And while her predecessors had models to look at, Obama herself doesn’t have anyone to look up to – that’s the issue with being a trailblazer – being the first anything is not easy because everyone around you thinks he or she can do better.

But Cottle isn’t operating in a vacuum – and despite her critics’ charges, Obama may be seen as a disappointment to many, because of her soft, cuddly, family-friendly image; many – especially conservatives, were turned off by Obama during her husband’s campaign, when she spoke more candidly about her feelings about America – particularly her take on race, gender, and labor. Unfortunately, whenever a black woman speaks her mind, and she’s not being nice or uplifting, she’s being an “angry black woman.”

But should the first lady smooth over any sharp edges to mollify anxious white people, unused to black women in positions of power and influence?

And who’s to say that the nice, hula-hooping Michelle Obama is any less authentic than the slicker, glossier Obama?

The problem I see with all this armchair psychology around Michelle Obama is that we’re all assuming that there is a “real” Michelle Obama hidden somewhere, but it’s hidden by the focus grouped mom-in-chief model we see. But it’s possible that Obama’s commitment to her family isn’t a cynical ploy to calm conservatives, but a sincere aspect of a well-rounded personality. As Marcotte said, “right now [Obama is] someone who has quit her job in order to support her husband’s career. Like many women in her situation, she fills her time with community activities and volunteer work. Obama is under no illusions about what she’s doing, which is why she calls herself ‘mom-in-chief’.”Marcotte makes a good point – lots of career-minded feminists put their careers on hold to prop up their spouses ambitions – Hillary Clinton did.

But I have to disagree with Marcotte when she writes, “The job of first lady is to be the president’s wife.” I’d argue that being the president’s wife is merely a qualification to be first lady. The job of first lady is more than just being the president’s wife. She’s a spokesperson for her husband’s administration. She’s a cheerleader for her country. She’s a soft core diplomat. If being first lady is simply being the president’s wife then she wouldn’t have her own office in the East Wing, or be dragged around the country campaigning for her husband or her party. While folks don’t vote for first ladies, spouses can help or hinder their husband’s presidential campaigns – Laura Bush was integral in successfully selling her husband’s compassionate conservatism, while Teresa Heinz-Kerry is blamed by some for hurting John Kerry’s presidential chances with her inability to hold her tongue. And many credit Clinton for saving her husband’s presidency during his impeachment trial (as well as imperiling it with her involvement in healthcare reform).

But all this hand-wringing still persists, and sometimes I’m guilty of it myself – why won’t she condemn her husband’s droning program? Why can’t she be more aggressively pro-choice? Did her public support of marriage equality come out only when she felt it was politically viable? Why won’t she embrace more challenging issues? Why doesn’t she talk more about race?

Some will say that Obama doesn’t have an obligation to do any of that – she’s not a politician, so she doesn’t owe anyone anything. It’s true that the first lady doesn’t have to fulfill any feminist wish dreams – particularly those of white women. But because Obama is in the public eye, she’s also fair game to all kinds of criticism, including those who may complain that Obama’s “doing feminism wrong.” And as I argued earlier, being a first lady does entail some duties, but more importantly it affords the title holder a massive public platform. And it’s here that Obama disappoints many. Being one of the most famous women in the world, Obama could make a huge difference, so it may be a bit disappointing that the topics she chose to work on are relatively “safe” options like healthy eating and education.

I’m not advocating for the first lady to suddenly have a voice in policy-making decisions, nor do I think she should be involved in the appointments of key cabinet members (at least not officially), but unlike most people, she has a huge voice – and so it’s always going to be a little disappointing when someone has access and doesn’t use it to its full potential.

But Michelle Obama isn’t a feminist nightmare and it’s unfair to think of her as one; but like all oversized figures, she represents a lot of different hopes, dreams, fears, prejudices, etc. Hillary Clinton once referred to herself as a Rorschach test – but to Cottle and feminists like her, Obama’s the Rorschach test – read their criticisms of Obama and one can see the deep-set insecurities of femininity, feminism, and motherhood. Obama’s embrace of her mom-in-chief title speaks more to their distrust of these issues.




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