(WOMENSENEWS)--During Barbara Walters' interview with Michelle Obama last month, I never heard Walters say why she chose the first lady as the most fascinating person of the year.
I dug up the transcript, watched the video and confirmed that Walters never said why.
Michelle Obama did a lot that was fascinating before 2009.
After bootstrapping her way to an elite college and law school where she was outspoken about racism, she left corporate law for high-profile policy work in politics and health care and won a powerful corporate board position.
All the while she battled her husband to pick up his slack on the parenting and insisted on her own demanding career after his election to the U.S. Senate. She told Vogue in 2007, "The days I stay home with my kids without going out, I start to get ill." She said she loved her work challenges "that have nothing to do with my husband and children."
Am I the only one who misses that formidable woman?
She began slipping from public view during the primary when her negative ratings--spurred by media portrayals of her as angry and vehement--threatened Barack's campaign. She has yet to re-emerge.
She was nowhere to be seen during her national interview with Walters. It was as if the opinionated Michelle has been packed away somewhere in the China Room, a la "Invasion of the Body Snatchers."
The woman in her place now insists that mothering is her only priority and her career was never a big part of her identity. She told Time Magazine in June, "I don't want to have a say" in national issues. Her standard stump speech now includes a line that she's lucky her husband handles all the "hard" stuff.
Why is such a powerful woman now mimicking Jackie O, who dumbed herself down for the media and trained her voice into a whisper?
It could be a defensive ploy against a media and public ready to jump on any opinion she utters. My guess is it's more likely an offensive power play of her own, one I've seen many of my peers execute--retreating into the safety of female stereotypes for public consumption while finding outlets for their ambitions behind the scenes.
As the Obamas transitioned to the White House, others questioned the retro Camelot roles. Salon's Rebecca Traister and NPR's Michel Martin both noted that the media simply presumed that Michelle's prior identity was and should be disposable.
But she'd disposed of it herself so handily during the campaign that the New York Times called it "one of the most remarkable political transformations in years." Her strong opinions, fiery critiques and prestigious degrees vanished from her speeches. She stopped granting hard news interviews, a practice she continues. Her friends say she never really had a domestic side, but now it's all she'll talk about on the record.
Many presumed the Jackie O turnabout would only last until the election.
But the retro Michelle has proven such a hit, she appears to be settling into that role for the duration of her husband's presidency. Time Magazine hinted that is precisely what makes her fascinating:
"Whether by accident or design, or a little of both, she has arrived at a place where her very power is magnified by her apparent lack of interest in it."
Legendary Image Control
Coverage of the first lady's first year reveals that she leaves very little to accident.
Michelle's control of her public look has become legendary.
Editors at Essence and More complained--on the record--that the first lady and her staff stepped on editors' toes trying to wrest control of the cover shoot.
As the More editor put it, "She was creating the cover. She was creating the image. There's definitely a will of steel there."
This woman cares deeply about her image, and her choice for More, Vogue and People was pink, pink and pink. Never any jacket; never anything professional or powerful. The White House denies any intent to soften Michelle's personality, but I think the pink speaks for itself.
Far from simply toning her powerful self down, Michelle has adopted a whole new persona. Her choreographed image of an easy, breezy, hula-hooping and frolicking-with-the-dog gal is difficult to believe on its own, but coupled with angry repudiation of her former self it becomes fanciful.
One reporter noted that both her husband and her chief of staff smirked at her defiant claims to no longer be interested in policy issues. The New York Times offered a journalistic smirk of its own, writing in April that "The image that Mrs. Obama is projecting, however, fails to fully reflect the multifaceted first lady . . ." Why isn't the public smirking as well?
Instead, the public is reassured, even though they know the "haven't a care" facade runs contrary to everything we know about her intensity.
'Most Ambitious Associate Ever'
Michelle's boss at the law firm described her as "quite possibly the most ambitious associate that I've ever seen." She went over his head to get higher profile assignments and he added, "I couldn't give her something that would meet her sense of ambition to change the world."
Knowing all of that, Time Magazine still wants to believe Michelle's public show of appearing to be "at peace, even relieved, that her power is symbolic."
It reminds me of our country's position on gay people in the military. In this case the message is: You can be as educated and experienced as your husband, but just please don't act on it because it makes everyone else uncomfortable.
What bothers me most about this "don't ask, don't tell" public persona is that it reinforces a mythical gender dichotomy that Michelle has spent most of her adult life disproving. Meanwhile, reports have the old Michelle pursuing her ambitions behind the scenes, knee deep in policy papers, lobbying and slamming tables to have her say.
I realize it's complicated to describe her actions as a "choice," when it was a recantation wrenched by a hostile public, prompted by the media.
But I see this retreat all too often in the corporate world where assertive women face severe social sanctions for being themselves. Female lawyers particularly are retreating to such an extent that legal historian Mona Harrington warns we're in danger of "permanent subordination." I realize many are uncomfortable publicly confronting sexism, but when high profile women disclaim their ambition with the zeal of converts, it sets us all back.
The cultural affirmation they win for deliberately reaffirming mythical female stereotypes must be bittersweet.
Lisa Nuss is an attorney and writer currently living in Salem, Oregon. Her opinions are posted at http://www.howdareshe.com/.
For more information:
"The Momification of Michelle Obama," Salon:
"Mom-In-Chief: Moms Closely Watch Michelle Obama," NPR:
"First Lady is in Control of Building her Image," New York Times
"The Obamas' Marriage," New York Times Magazine
"When Michelle met Barack," The Washington Post