Thursday, September 20, 2012

Guns and Gardening: Crafting Michelle Obama's Image as First Lady

A Google search for "Michelle Obama's Arms" turns up over 4,000,000 results, featuring workout routines and pictures of the "first guns" (of the flesh rather than metallic type). In contrast, the first result for the search "Laura Bush's Arms" is Feminist Up in Arms Over Honoring Laura Bush. Michelle Obama and President Obama's campaign staff have created a distinct persona for the First Lady of the United States. But can this Ivy-league educated professional woman be the First Feminist while existing within the frame of a "traditional" wife and mother?

Showing off those famous guns
According to a Vanity Fair article published in 2007, Michelle grew up in a traditional nuclear family. She stated, “I came into our marriage with a more traditional notion of what a family is...It was what I knew growing up—the mother at home, the father works, you have dinner around the table. I had a very stable, conventional upbringing, and that felt very safe to me." However, Michelle did not follow this mold for most of her adult life. She seemed to define herself as a professional first. She is a graduate of Princeton and Harvard Law School and held high-powered positions in both the private and public sectors. She in fact met the man who would be President when she was his mentor attorney and he was a summer associate at Sidley Austin. In 2006, her salary was nearly double that of her husband's.

Michelle at Princeton
However, when Barack decided to run for President, Michelle put her career on the back burner, reducing her workload to only 20%. She described a decision to keeping working as "being selfish." She said if she had kept working she "would have felt guilty." Clearly, after President Obama won the election, Michelle gave her notice, just as other working First Ladies before had done. She instead dove into the role of First Lady and "Mom-in-Chief."

Defining Michelle Obama's persona as First Lady displays the seeming contradictions that many women embody. She is both strong and sweet. A professional and a frilly-frocked gardener. A glass-ceiling breaker and a committed mother.

A 2008 New York Times article written during the campaign details how Michelle moved from reluctant campaign wife to carefully crafted First Lady. It discusses how the campaign softened her image by downplaying her former career and emphasizing her role as wife and mother. For example, it states that in the beginning of the campaign, Michelle appeared on news programs, but moved to giving interviews on “The View” and in Ladies’ Home Journal. On her speech at the 2008 Democratic convention, the author writes, "Mrs. Obama’s presentation touched just a bit on her own career, as a lawyer, community organizer and hospital executive, concentrating instead on her roles as a daughter, a mother, a sister and a wife."

This is a common device for making a professional woman "relatable" to stay-at-home mothers. Clearly the campaign staff knows what they are doing, given Mrs. Obama's approval ratings went from 32% in March 2008 to 63% one year later. One academic hypothesizes that "in order to make Mrs. Obama more appealing to mainstream Americans, campaign managers accentuated her female identity rather than her racial identity...Mrs. Obama was rewarded with ascending favorability ratings and positive press when she was portrayed as an ideal mother, a fashion icon, and a favorable first lady" instead of the "angry black woman" the media portrayed her as in the beginning of the campaign.

Michelle as a law student
This year's Democratic Convention campaign video leading up to her speech did not mention Mrs. Obama's prior career at all. The video highlights a few important issues to the First Lady, including military families and combatting childhood obesity. The video titles move from her "Beginnings" in Chicago to "First Lady" to "First Family." It does not feature anything about her career or life before her husband's political campaigns. Although it does feature her "longtime friend" Valerie Jarrett, who actually was Michelle's boss when she worked for Mayor Daley in Chicago. The fact that Ms. Jarrett is Mrs. Obama's former employer is not mentioned. The video also features Dr. Jill Biden who says that the two ladies bonded over the issue of military families.

The video emphasizes that Michelle is "so good with young people" and shows her playing tetherball and exercising with children. Ms. Jarrett hypothesizes that the children "look at her like their mom because she is a mom." The majority of the video focuses on her Let's Move campaign to get kids to eat healthier and exercise. It then goes on to a section entitled "Family First." Ms. Jarrett again comes on to state that nothing is more important to Michelle than her children, her husband, and her mom, but neglects to state that at some point in the not too distant past her career was also at least a part of Mrs. Obama's life. The video frames the core of Michelle by her definition as a mother, wife, and daughter. President Obama then comes on and states that Michelle knows that the most important legacy in a person's life is making sure your children are raised right, to be good people. Undoubtedly, raising great kids is an important part of a person's life, but the video says this is the most important part of a person's legacy. I wonder if President Obama would say the same about himself.

The Let's Move campaign has dominated Michelle's tenure as First Lady. This issue fits nicely in the narrative of First Lady as "Mother-in-Chief." Michelle cares about the health of children because she is a mom herself. It is a safe issue to take on because it is relatively uncontroversial (except to a few right-wing talk radio hosts who can turn any non-issue into a "controversy"). Probably Michelle's most talked-about feature are her famously toned arms. To publicize the Let's Move campaign, she has competed in push-up contests with the likes of Jimmy Fallon and Ellen DeGeneres on national television. Michelle is literally a strong woman. The emphasis on her strength and athleticism does separate Mrs. Obama from former First Ladies. She has proven that women can be physically strong and feminine at the same time, and is a role model for female athletes. This is great. However, her strength is still framed by her involvement with raising children. She works out with kids in a lot of campaign videos. She hula-hoops, double-dutches, dances, sprints, and does all kinds of physical activities with children around the country.

The other issue that Michelle has adopted is military families. Again, this is a laudable concern. Military families do have special needs and are often ignored in our society. But this issue too is connected to Mrs. Obama's role as wife and mother. She is sympathetic to the military families she meets because she can imagine how hard it is for them - because she is a mother.

Giving her speech at the Democratic National Convention 
Watching Michelle's stellar Democratic National Convention speech one cannot help but be impressed by the First Lady's poise and talent with public speaking. She can command a crowd. Her passion is inspirational. But it left me wondering: is there a way to be a First Lady without defining yourself as "Mom-in-Chief" first? It is admirable to emphasize the importance of caring for your children and it is fine to define your most important role as mother. But is this really how Michelle would define herself, or is this part of her campaign-crafted image?

Michelle Obama has accomplished some truly extraordinary things in her life and her career. I just wish the media and the Obama campaign could incorporate some of her accomplishments aside from her role as wife, mother, and daughter. This is a useful device for making her more relatable to the stay-at-home moms in Ohio, but does this send the right message to the young girls in our country? The message seems to be that you are defined by your relationship to others, particularly your family. She is a strong woman, and I believe a feminist. But her role as First Lady fits squarely into the "traditional" view of women as defined by their husbands and their children. When Mrs. Obama (hopefully) begins a second term as First Lady I would like to see her take on an issue important to her, irrespective of whether it involves children, family, or anything that women are traditionally supposed to care about. Surely a strong, ivy-league educated former attorney and high-powered administrator cares about something other than getting kids to eat their veggies.


Sarah said...
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Sarah said...

Well done! I share many of the concerns you identified concerning the incredibly fine balance Michelle Obama is forced to teeter along as the first black first lady. She learned from the backlash against Hillary when she tried to tackle health care, and her own initially poor approval ratings. She is clearly such an amazing woman - her speech at the DNC blew me away - but to what degree can she let a separate identity shine? And to what degree should she? At the risk of the reelection? Tough issues for sure. One's that deserve more attention.

MC said...
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Lisa R. Pruitt said...

Great post. I just heard this shocking story on NPR this morning ... with quotes from a woman who thinks it is not "first lady-like" to be seen doing push-ups. What a denial of the great role model Michelle Obama is for physical fitness, especially in this time when we are facing a national obesity epidemic:

Also, in Winter 2009, I taught an undergraduate course on gender and the 2008 Presidential election. I thought we were going to focus on HIlary and Sarah, but my students had a lot to say about Michelle Obama, as you can see here:

MC said...

Elizabeth, this was a great read. I love Michelle Obama, and not because she is a mom, or her Let's Move! campaign, but because she represents the success that so many aspiring professionals strive for (on so many levels!).

An African-American from the South Side of Chicago, the odds were against Michelle (even more so in the 80s). Nevertheless, she went on to Princeton and Harvard and landed a job at a top law firm. What's more impressive is that she left big law to lead the front on a number of public service initiatives. So why don't we hear more about the First Lady as a professional, a lawyer, and a community activist? Why do these roles reduce her approval ratings?

The official White House page for the First Lady [] touches on these accomplishments. But as you inform, it highlights her as "first and foremost... Malia and Sasha's mom."

Perhaps it plays into strategy, but something about emphasizing Michelle Obama as a mom seems so ordinary. I don't mean to downplay the responsibility that comes with having children, or the mother role, but you don't need credentials from Princeton or Harvard to do it.

You're right about one thing, Michelle Obama is strong: it takes a strong woman (not to mention black woman) to accomplish everything that she has. Michelle's career is an inspiration to many, and it would be great to hear more about how she beat the odds than how she landed a role on Sesame Street.