Sheila Gibbons

(WOMENSENEWS)–Here we go again: another inauguration, a new president and a new first lady facing the challenge of defining her new role even as pundits and reporters rush to do it for her.

Like her predecessors, Michelle Obama will enter the White House minus a job description. Her husband’s is well defined. Her daughters’ tasks are to adapt to a different family life and new schools. The soon-to-be-purchased puppy will get training to become a White House pet with its own following.

But the first lady’s role? Still an improvisation.

Coverage thus far doesn’t give me much hope that we’ll evolve from the saccharine first-lady coverage of years past to something more mature and meaningful. We’re learning what clothing labels Michelle Obama favors; who could design her inaugural ball gown and swearing-in apparel (a staple of inauguration coverage); her affinity for "Dick Van Dyke Show" reruns; her favorite food (mac and cheese, reportedly); and so on.

The woman in question is an Ivy League-educated lawyer who commanded a substantial salary as an executive in the University of Chicago hospital system. But much of what we’re reading, viewing and hearing tries to predict which former first lady she’ll most be like, as if these women, of widely varying backgrounds and experiences, constitute the universe of options for the newest to join their group.

Maternalizing Michelle

There also seems to be a tendency in some media accounts to maternalize Michelle Obama, as if when she said she would be her daughters’ "mom-in-chief," she would be ours as well.

Vanity Fair gushed that she looks "as down to earth as any other soccer mom and as glamorous as a model, while instantly commanding respect, even before she starts to speak."

"She appears to be the one person above all to whom Barack turns for guidance," says Chris Stephen, U.S. correspondent for The Scotsman. "But we won’t be seeing her in a cabinet position; her role is likely to be maintaining the moral compass."

Mom, model, moral arbiter. Wow.

Michelle Obama’s impressive life credentials alone ought to inspire inquiry about her capacity to contribute to public life in the special role she will soon have. But conventional media’s view of White House occupants–a type of elected royal family–consigns the first lady to a somewhat unreal role akin to a king’s consort.

"In actuality, her position, though ill-defined, paradoxical and confusing, has become increasingly important in the U.S. political system, particularly during campaigns," says Maurine Beasley in "First Ladies and the Press: The Unfinished Partnership of the Media Age," published by Northwestern University Press in 2005. "Yet the news media tend to ignore her except as a celebrity political wife whose status is derived totally from her husband and consequently not worth thoughtful coverage."

Paycheck for First Lady?

An example of coverage falling short would be a Dec. 16, 2008, story on the "NBC Nightly News," reported by Andrea Mitchell, herself half of a Washington power couple that includes her husband, Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman. The topic: Should first ladies receive a salary?

Given that Michelle Obama is obliged to give up her career because of inevitable conflicts were she to be a salaried employee in any organization outside the White House, this is an important question now and going forward, when we can assume that future first ladies also will be women of professional achievement.

What followed was a video retrospective of recent first ladies that offered glimpses of them in social, diplomatic and cause-related roles. Mitchell asked only two sources–historian Doris Kearns Goodwin and Lisa Caputo, former press secretary to Hillary Clinton–if the position should be salaried.

Caputo said no, because it’s not an elected position. Goodwin said that while the first lady’s contributions deserve to be valued, the fact that they are not "is part, unfortunately, of women’s work being devalued." Goodwin got to develop this more fully in a companion piece on the "Nightly News" Web site, but viewers of the newscast didn’t see that.

Then it was on to a clip of Hollywood dance duo Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, with Mitchell noting that Rogers did everything Astaire did except backwards and in high heels. This is a well-known cliche that implies that women doing the same work as men have often been shortchanged, but does it even make sense when asking about compensation for the U.S. president’s spouse?

In her foreword to Beasley’s book on first ladies, Caryl Rivers of Boston University asked, "Why, each political season, does the Dragon Lady specter arise?"

Demonizing the Dragon Ladies

Eleanor Roosevelt stoically continued her work on behalf of women and minorities in the face of withering criticism. Nancy Reagan was depicted as a clothes horse who often found fault with her husband’s staff. Hillary Clinton was viciously demonized.

In September 1992, Rivers notes, the New York Times reported that "at least 20 articles in major publications this year involved some comparison between Mrs. Clinton and a grim role model for political wives: Lady Macbeth."

Michelle Obama has already felt the hostility of those eager to find fault. She’s been called unpatriotic for saying: "For the first time in my adult lifetime, I am really proud of my country." (Some news accounts shortened the quote, dropping the "really" and thus altering the meaning.) Those eager to believe that she and her husband are radicals didn’t get the joke when a New Yorker cover depicted her as an armed terrorist fist-bumping her husband.

In a pre-election post from Oct. 23, Corynne Corbett ("That Black Girl Blogging"), said Michelle Obama "will have to consider her role carefully . . . Coming on as strong as Hillary did is a risk, especially for a sister. Black comedians are already joking that if Obama is elected she’d actually be running the show. And frankly, that scares some people."

Her platform offers a huge opportunity, too, wrote Allison Samuels in the Nov. 10 edition of Newsweek: "For the first time, people will have a chance to get up close and personal with the type of African American woman they so rarely see" in media depictions of black women.

We can have that "up close and personal" experience if reporters and pundits will stop invoking outdated filters and silly stereotypes to describe accurately the development of a presidential spouse who has power, presence and pizzazz. Yes, we can.

Sheila Gibbons is editor of Media Report to Women, a quarterly news journal of news, researchand commentary about women and media. She is also co-author of "Taking Their Place: A Documentary History ofWomen and Journalism," Strata Publishing Inc., which received the "Texty" Textbook Excellence Award from theText and Academic Authors Association, and of "Exploring Mass Media for A Changing World," Lawrence ErlbaumAssociates, publishers.

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