The Nation

Why is Michelle Obama Channeling Jackie O?

Friday, January 8, 2010

Why did Barbara Walters nominate Michelle Obama as the most fascinating person of the year? Lisa Nuss double checked the transcript--and the first lady's first year--and couldn't find a reason.

Editor's Note: The following is a commentary. The opinions expressed are those of the author and not necessarily the views of Women's eNews.

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(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."

Identity Reshaped

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.

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"But I see this retreat all too often in the corporate world where
assertive women face severe social sanctions for being themselves."
The above is the most important statement in this article. If Michelle Obama has retreated, you can be sure that she has been subject to pressures to do so that even she could not stand up to and survive.
If you recall my earlier comments on Obama, I have always seen him as firmly against women's equality, and for placing women in niches where they believe they are equal, but, are only speaking to a few others like themselves. Thus, while some outspoken women have good lives, their real ability to affect the position of the every-woman is purposefully limited by other factors over which they still have no control. It is the old problem of everyone get together to talk about it and then all go home and everything is the same.
The real message from the white house is that women are second and belong where their husbands/employers/government men want them to be. As a woman, at age 65, I find that women need to read history a lot more and a lot more carefully, and to every day resist being second in their own lives.

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