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.