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Yes Michelle Obama can

Posted in Uncategorized by malaysiasms on May 3, 2009

First Lady, Mom-in-chief, role model, fashion icon, dinner lady, serial hugger. Twelve top female writers celebrate the many faces of Michelle Obama


The woman’s woman
Tough, ambitious, clever – and very normal

Michelle Obama‘s Secret Service code name is Renaissance. This is apt. The role of First Lady has long seemed old-fashioned, even moribund, and those who tried to fiddle with it did so at their peril. While a revolution was taking place in the lives of most American women, Jacqueline Kennedy kept her own bra firmly on, devoting herself instead to interior decoration and the replanting of the Rose Garden. Thereafter, a pattern was set. Forget Eleanor Roosevelt: it was the job of the First Lady, be she ever so boring (Barbara Bush) or ever so brittle (Nancy Reagan), to write menus, to commission pretty new china, and to advance various uncontroversial Good Causes. She was allowed to care about flowers and trees (Lady Bird Johnson) or refugees (Rosalynn Carter), but not too much, and not too politically. When Hillary Rodham Clinton arrived in Washington, maiden name still in tow, and promptly abandoned the White House chef to his recipe books while she took on a job attempting to overhaul healthcare, there was widespread outrage. How dare she? It wasn’t long before poor old Hillary was back indoors, plumping cushions, writing invitations and chewing her fist.

Obama is only three months into her strange new career as First Lady, yet already the job feels refreshed: less dusty, less embarrassing, less tight-assed. To all intents and purposes, she really has effected some kind of renaissance, not by bagging some high-profile role as, say, Barack’s Middle East envoy – she made it clear right from the start that politics was not part of her own plan – but simply by being herself: a wife and a mother, but also a clever, educated woman. She is the first First Lady anyone can remember who seems remotely like the rest of us, or other women we know, and not just because she is only 45 (Hillary Clinton, remember, was 45 when she became First Lady, Laura Bush was 54). She has a quality that cannot be faked: to be prosaic about it, she is normal.

Women can scent normality at 100 paces, not to mention through the pages of a glossy magazine. We know it when we see it. And while we can be merciless about other women, passing judgment on them in an instant, we are keen on sisterhood, too. Obama feels like a sister: feminine, and with hard-felt ideas about domesticity, but in no sense a daffy pinny-wearer; tough and ambitious, but without having appropriated male behaviour as a way of getting on.

This paradigm shift feels like a minor miracle, and you can’t help but feel that Hillary Clinton, so often and so horribly reviled, must look at Michelle, in her perky cardigans and her J Crew skirts, and wonder how she has pulled it off. In the beginning, after all, Obama was regularly characterised in the press as an “angry black woman” (her speech to an audience in Milwaukee in which she said: “For the first time in my life, I am proud of my country” went down about as well as some of Hillary’s sarky comments about Tammy Wynette, standing by your man, and baking cookies).

What’s more, she and Hillary have plenty in common. Both grew up in Chicago, in reasonably modest circumstances. Both were academic (Princeton and Harvard for Obama, Wellesley and Yale for Clinton). The two also shared an early reputation for being straitlaced and determined (Obama’s friends called her the Taskmaster; Clinton’s high-school yearbook made some joke about how she would one day be a nun called Sister Frigidaire). So how come everyone is now mad for Obama? It’s so unfair.

But the truth is that there was always something unconvincing about Clinton’s efforts to appear well-rounded; a part of you always knew that she was more interested in talking about Kosovo and Gulf War syndrome than cookie recipes. I don’t especially blame her for this – why shouldn’t a woman be like that? – but I can see that it didn’t make one warm to her. Obama, on the other hand, seems not to feel the need constantly to remind others of her intellect. She is comfortable with girl talk. Anecdotes about how Barack looked as he drove her home from hospital after the birth of their first child – nervous – fall from her lips easily, if not unthinkingly. This is a generational thing. It was Obama’s good fortune to enter the world of work at a different, and more progressive moment than Clinton. At the same point in her life when Clinton was serving mint juleps in the Governor’s Mansion in Arkansas and worrying that her brain was turning to mush, Obama was in Chicago, working in law and later in hospital administration; when Barack was elected senator she didn’t even feel the need to move to Washington.

But perhaps it’s to do with Obama’s essential personality, too. Granted, in reality we know little about her. The information that we have been given has been doled out in coffee spoons. It has to do with internet shopping – all that “cute” stuff you can find there! – and the irritation she feels when the president’s undergarments fail to find their way to the laundry basket; with Italian food, which she likes, and with her mother’s fried chicken, made with Ritz crackers in the batter, which she apparently avoids.

Still, the thing that really strikes me is that, for all the trials involved in being First Lady – and they must be legion – Obama looks like she is enjoying herself. Gone are the long-suffering looks and clenched, lacquered smiles of past First Ladies. She is not enduring; she is thriving. Her wardrobe has been much praised for its use of acid yellow and credit crunch-defying high-street bargains. Maybe so. What I like about it is the obvious pleasure she takes in it. I keep imagining her tying the outsized bow on the white blouse that she wore on her big trip to Europe, and the home film that I see in my mind’s eye – she has a few attempts and then, triumphant at last, does a little twirl in front of her mirror – makes me smile. She went to Harvard; I think it’s OK for her to play around with outsized bows and for us to relish that play, so long as we never forget that she is only the third First Lady to have a postgraduate degree, and that one day, when all this is over, when it is her turn, she will resume her career out there in the real world.
Rachel Cooke

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