A year ago, Michelle Obama was seen as a blemish in her husband’s sparkling visage. New York Times Columnist Maureen Dowd called her “emasculating” for publicly teasing her husband about his domestic shortcomings. After an unpolished public comment, she was berated as unpatriotic, and later stereotyped as an angry Black woman.
But today, she is America’s Sweetheart—more popular even than the very popular president is. She is our favorite mom, a role model for kids, and a fashion icon all wrapped up into one. How did such a transformation occur?
In Vogue in the White House
Michelle’s every move—and what she is wearing while making it—is charted more closely than Brangelina’s. TIME magazine’s Web site has turned itself into a virtual repository of First Lady snapshots, with slideshows of Michelle Obama “behind the scenes,” her “fashion evolution,” and her outfits in Europe. The clothes she wears often sell out immediately. (Bandolino has reported a bang up year because of the First Lady’s affinity for their shoes.) She has been on the cover of Essence, Vogue, More, and O, Oprah Winfrey’s magazine. She is the first First Lady to make Maxim’s hottest-women-in-the-world list (number ninety-three) and she is also one of People’s Most Beautiful People.
There are certainly still pockets of antipathy, particularly in conservative circles. But for the most part, Americans and Europeans are having a love affair with Michelle Obama. The only controversy she sparks now is debate about whether she is showing too much arm in her sleeveless ensembles. And even Dowd recently fawned over Michelle, giving her a thumbs-up for displaying her muscular biceps, as well as for her performance as a First Lady.
From Loud to Proud
The journey from liability to adored celebrity has been lightning quick, but calculated. Before, when she was still whispered to be a radical, she would talk about the country’s and her husband’s flaws. She acknowledged the poverty and the racism that persist. She teased her husband about his morning breath and his inability to put the butter back in the fridge. She also made it clear that she didn’t want to be his appendage. In an interview with USA Today in the early days of the campaign, she said she didn’t want “to be so tied to all that (Barack) so that I don’t have anything for me.” Then in February 2008, she made the fateful statement (twice) that branded her un-American. If it is not etched in your mind from its endless repetition, then here it is again: “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country.”
Within the next few months, Michelle began to water down her public persona. Although she had always emphasized her role as a mother, Michelle made it her defining characteristic. Her campaign as mom-in-chief wasn’t as much a departure, but a shift in focus. She stopped commenting on the election, politics, and race and started sticking to a message relating everything back to the family. The symbolic turning point is generally considered when she went on The View, a daytime talk show that caters to stay-at-home moms. She reassured the audience that she talked with Barack about policy only as any couple would chat about their day at work, stressing that the kids prevented heavy political talk. She also warmly joked about the fist bump and her reputation as something of a firebrand saying that Barack advised her before the show to “be good.”
Bringing It Back Home
Michelle began to relate herself more to the everywoman and the struggle for balance between a career and family. So instead of the perceived “scary corporate woman,” she underscored her role as mom who is trying to raise her kids, work, and eat healthfully, says Mitchell Lester, a consultant who has worked on several campaigns for California state congresswomen.
And it worked.
“She hit upon something new,” says Lester. “A true struggle that average Americans can relate to. She did it genuinely.”
The shift was embodied in a primetime speech she gave a few months before the election. The Harvard-educated lawyer and former vice president of the University of Chicago Medical Center summed herself up as “a wife who loves my husband” and “a mom whose girls are the heart of my heart and the center of my world.”
Since moving into 1600 Pennsylvania Ave, she has stuck to the theme. Her projects are well within the perimeter of traditional First Lady roles. She has promoted healthy living, planting a White House organic vegetable garden and stressing the importance of a good diet. When she served at a soup kitchen, she chose one that only offered fresh produce.
That she is using the bully pulpit for a cause that fits squarely in the traditional feminine realm doesn’t make it less important or disingenuous. To be sure, with one third of our country’s population obese and record levels of type II diabetes and heart disease, it is crucially important. Her goal of making the White House more accessible to ordinary people is also laudable.
Though her initiatives don’t suffer from lack of worthiness, from a feminist perspective, they seem to be missing her braininess. She isn’t tackling the polemical issues, and although she might be addressing difficult problems, she’s taking a noncontroversial approach to solving them. But the term is young and, quite possibly, there will be another one. She is building the good will and political capital to advance an ambitious agenda. For now, Michelle Obama is compared to Jackie Kennedy for her style and good looks, but there’s still time for her to emerge as a bold leader in the vein of Eleanor Roosevelt.