Stop Trivializing FLOTUS, Media (And Feminists)

Today Michelle Obama announced a new organization, Organizing for Action, that will take hold of the much vaunted list of names built by the Organizing for America Obama presidential campaign, and press the president’s agenda (which pieces and how strongly remains to be seen).

It is, as Joe Biden would say, a Big *#:D*C@ Deal.

In response, The Wall Street Journal is comparing her to Kim Kardashian because she just got a — breaking news — haircut, CBS News is all over the birthday bangs, and FOX News is running a poll about her new bangs: Do you guys like them?

Meanwhile the Washington Post took the opportunity to headline the Style section with a big story: Four years later, feminists split by Michelle Obama’s ‘work’ as first lady.

Does it need to be spelled out that Michelle Obama isn’t taken seriously by the media, to say nothing of the government that doesn’t pay her for her work as an official representative of the state, and that’s a national crime?

But I would like to return to the Post article about some white feminists’ less than enthusiastic appraisal of Michelle Obama. I am familiar with what the article refers to, and it extends beyond outcry when she proclaimed herself “Mom in Chief.” I have seen some criticism of her within white feminist quarters because she is into gardening.

Meanwhile the media is breathlessly covering her bangs and her arms and her clothes.

As I see it, this is not what feminism was supposed to do: Judging women for how they self-define, rather than judging the mainstream culture for devaluing women.

Any woman, any person, any human being, should be respected to self-define. This belief is at the core of my feminism. Michelle Obama wants to call herself “Mom in Chief” – great. Marissa Mayer wants to go right back to work after she has a baby – she alone knows best how to navigate her own work and family life. Oprah Winfrey wants to give Lance Armstrong another opportunity to be a total jerk in front of everyone for two nights in a row – okay, here we can draw the line (public actions are different than private life choices).

Michelle Obama is not respected because she is First Lady. The First Lady position has never been respected, and it has always been constrained. That’s a national crime. But, Michelle Obama is also not respected because she is a black woman, and that is equally a national crime.

Feminism is a social justice movement that is inextricably entwined with the racial justice movement, but the road has not been without hiccups, and there is still a long way to go. One of the spaces where I most see fellow white feminists tripping up is assuming that things frequently rejected along some (but certainly not all!) white feminists’ path to empowerment — motherhood, religion, sexy clothing — must be rejected by every woman, or empowerment is impossible for that woman and all women.

This is one of those areas where I think feminism is changing. The pressure to say an experience must be universal to be valid doesn’t hold as much water in an Internet-enabled era. In fact it is the sea of heterogenous particulars that makes us strong. The concept of feminisms, versus a feminism, is nothing new, and yet now more than ever before we are able to hear from different people, and realize that it’s okay — preferable — to be diverse in our emotions and interests and thoughts just as in our ethnicity and gender expression and sexuality (historically prized by feminists, however imperfectly).

Listening, and not telling, is at the core of where modern feminism is headed. Offering support, rather than requiring approval, is at the core of where modern feminism is headed.

The sub-par way that Michelle Obama is treated, both by the mainstream culture, as well as within some pockets of feminism, presents a major growth opportunity. Let’s take it.

PS – Are you into the broader ‘feminism is changing’ discussion? Mark your calendars to join me, Andrea Plaid, Gloria Feldt, Shelby Knox, Stacey Burns, Steph Herold, Veronica Arreola and tons of other activists and advocates for an #InterGenFem TweetChat on Thursday, Jan. 31 from 2:00 to 3:00 p.m. EST. Save the date and tell your friends.

23 thoughts on “Stop Trivializing FLOTUS, Media (And Feminists)

  1. I’m a white male, but I think what Michelle Obama does is awesome and very important, especially since my state has a high obesity rate. I think we should be less concerned about her hair (although the new look is fabulous) and more concerned about the woman herself and what she plans to do with OofA. If it’s LGBT rights, preventing environmental destruction, just getting kids to be healthier, or something along those lines, then i support the First Lady 110% of the way.

  2. I don’t think it necessarily means Michelle Obama isn’t being taken seriously because of the media attention on her hair and clothing. I think a lot of women look up to Michelle because she is not only a strong, powerful, intelligent woman and force to be reckoned with, she’s also in great shape, has amazing style and always looks fabulous.
    As a professional woman myself, that is a combo I always strive for, and look to Michelle as an example of how to achieve it.
    Should she get more media attention for her political and social efforts? Maybe. But does that make talking about her (effortless) style and (banging) arms inherently wrong? Absolutely not. For me at least, it’s an inspiration.
    And for the record, I love the bangs 🙂

  3. Thank you! Well said! It seems like feminists are putting pressure on women to “be” a certain way, rather than just the FREEDOM to be whatever way they want. I can’t tell you how hurtful and insulting it was to me when a family member mentioned all my schooling and how I haven’t “done anything” with it (I am currently a SAHM.) Who judges what is “worthy” for a person to do and when. Like you said, “Let a sista get settled in!”

  4. I don’t think the media’s bias is against women in this case, I think it’s towards sensationalism and fluff. Michelle Obama is not an elected official. She only represents the government by proxy. I greatly admire all First Ladies for historically using their fame and influence to do good work (though it is clearly politically motivated) but they are still celebrities: famous by association only. I think that to see this as a feminist issue is missing the point: that the media tells fluffy stories about unimportant people because viewers and readers eat it up.

  5. I had no idea gardening was an issue for feminists. How sad.

    Not surprising Ms. First Lady gets superficial attention. Women always get superficial attention. Just be glad she’s not getting the sadistic kind of attention Hilary Clinton was getting when she was First Lady. The sad thing is, in these times, the more effective Michelle Obama becomes, the worse the negative press mongers will attack her. Right now they merely trivialize her. At some point they will foment actual hatred of her.

    Good post!

  6. I agree with a lot of the points made, but do you really see the position First Lady as not being respected. I feel as if both Jackie Kennedy and Eleanor Roosevelt were respected due to their position as First Ladies.

  7. I think that it’s good that there are a lot of people who do respect Michelle Obama immensely, and even people who might not have before certainly did after her speech at the DNC. I think what is so amazing about her is that she could be completely seen as what feminism should be, because from how it appears, she doesn’t care what anyone else thinks, she’s too busy fighting for causes she cares about and using her influence in a constructive way, as well as doing the things she enjoys and presenting herself the way she wants to be presented. I think she is a fantastic example for all women.

  8. Great great post!!! However, I believe the feminists are not angry at Michelle, but rather at the reasons she is being recognized. As much as I find her style especially for a First lady, tres chic, I personally feel it isn’t worth the kind of hype it’s getting. I feel Michelle is more recognized for her style than her efforts as the First lady. This is not her fault but the media’s…

    But what the heck! we are living in a world where some women are famous for their butts and nothing else AND are considered ‘great’ because of this asset ALONE. I guess feminists are just gonna have to endure this for a long long time.

  9. I don’t follow too closely on what other women say about Michelle Obama.

    Even if she no longer remains First Lady (which will happen one day), she’s a terrific person that shines with personality and calm intelligence. Have people forgotten that she had a paid career job prior to First Lady? It’s pathetic.

    I’m not even sure what the nitpicking is all about an interest in gardening, etc.

    One day I await a biography after her First Lady phase….will be useful to know what she REALLY thinks about various issues and taking action.

  10. I’m not sure a First Lady really needs to be taken seriously. After all, we vote for a president and a vice president–not a president and wife team. I don’t honestly care all that much what the First Lady does as long as she doesn’t offend any touchy dictators with dirty bombs. It is kind of nice that the First Lady can get a whole lot done without anyone really noticing, but with a different first lady I might not like that so much. I’m just thinking lay off Michelle. Her bangs look fine and so does the garden. When she’s elected president, I will take her very seriously. in the meantime, I hope she’s having some fun up in the White House with her little bit of borrowed power. Really, she’s fine.

  11. I’ve never been a big fan of the “position” of First Lady. Given the treatment and ridicule of Hillary Clinton, I think that the First Lady position had to revert to the more traditional role. The First Lady works and gives up her personal pursuits (and private life) to get her husband into office. After, she is a representative of both the President and the country, but she does it as a woman, a wife of a powerful man. Yes, she greets guests, yes, she decorates for Christmas, yes, she stands by her man and had better look good (and appropriate) doing it, and yes her actions in these jobs will be reported, over and over again. It’s the job. What’s different is that no longer do girls and women necessarily or always aspire to be the wife of a powerful man, and the consummate hostess with style. Mrs. Obama has done more to dispel the stereotypes about Black woman and Black love than people realize. However, taking race out of it, I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about the First Lady as a First Lady I’ve always been this way, though. Meh. So I’m not surprised or offended that the Media reports on her style, her gardening, her hair . . . I’m just not that interested in it. She is doing her job well, but the position has constraints, for sure. I feel compelled to say that she seems like a hell of a woman, first lady or not.

  12. Taylor Reznik

    “…Michelle Obama is also not respected because she is a black woman, and that is equally a national crime.” You should provide empirical evidence for this statement. Using your poor logic, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was “not respected because she is a black woman.” Both women attract opposition because of ideology and worldview. Race has nothing to do with it, nor does race have anything to do with feminism.

  13. Laura

    I agree. It annoys me when the media focuses on her fashion or her hair or her arms (I couldn’t believe that controversy) instead of focusing on the work she does.

    She’s a Harvard Law graduate and a successful social activist, yet all the media can talk about is how she looks. It pisses me off.

    On an unrelated feminist note, what do you think of the Defense Secretary lifting the ban on women in combat? I’ve always thought that women should be officially allowed in combat, so I was excited to see that development.

    Anyway, great blog. I look forward to reading more.

    -Laura at Liberal Values Voter

  14. Thank you for this post! I’ve been an active feminist for about a year now and something that grinds my gears almost as much as misogynist footballer worship (grr) is the damnation of choice in certain feminist circles. Collectively we will wax lyrical about the importance of choice in reproductive rights (not disputing this – unbelievably important) but what about lifestyle choices? I personally find those who claim to be feminist while lambasting, say, the decision to be a stay-at-home mother (cough, Simone de Beauvoir, cough) to not be feminist at all
    Amazing piece!

  15. This is a great post. Feminism is not a universal experience, nor should it be; how a woman experiences her relationship to feminism is deeply personal and entwined within her own lived experience. News coverage of Michelle Obama’s fashion, haircut, fitness-whatever-is largely aimed at a female demographic, promulgating a narrative which serves the duel function of both delegitimizing women in positions of power, as well as upholding the system of values that makes such delegitimization possible by teaching women that this is the kind of BS they should care about, and indeed the very criteria on which they will continue to be judged.

    Also (addressing an earlier comment), to say that feminism has nothing to do with race is absurd; race, class, nationality, and gender are often interconnected, and any forced separation into arbitrary categories only serves to mystify the lived experience of many people on this planet.

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