In Robin Givhan's new book Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady, the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post fashion critic addresses the "mom-in-chief" effect - how Obama transformed her image by embracing issues related to childrearing and motherhood.
Earlier this year, Michelle Obama received criticism for not aligning herself with a cause - Givhan penned that article for the Post as well - but just last week Ms. Obama announced she's focusing her attentions on childhood obesity, a natural choice, considering her other efforts regarding children and health :
In her first year, she sketched out a job description that had nurturing at its core. She would turn parental mantras such as eat-your-vegetables and go-out-and-play into policy initiatives on healthy eating and exercise. At her behest, mentoring young Washington area students became part of the daily responsibilities of senior White House staff.
This quiet, child-focused form of outreach seemed to pacify some of her most vocal critics, who often alleged, especially during the campaign, that Obama was angry or controlling. Givhan explains that adopting this persona allowed her to rework her public image:
In many ways, the images of the first lady harvesting sweet potatoes and pushing a wheelbarrow heaped with lettuce replaced a host of stereotypes that had dogged her with one of her own choosing. Instead of the "angry black woman" finding fault with America, she appeared as a Whole Foods version of Mother Earth. She shed the hyper-glamorous image that had been foisted upon her by the fashion industry and that she had encouraged by posing for a host of glossy magazine covers. She may not have had dirt under her manicured fingernails, but she at least got a little mud on her knees.
Givhan's analysis feels superficial here, because it's difficult to understand Michelle Obama's true aims while under the harshest scrutiny that society can offer. Not only is Obama the First Lady, she's the first black First Lady, meaning she has to contend with far more projections and stereotypes than any of her predecessors. Indeed, even the comments to Givhan's excerpt reveal high levels of vitriol at even the concept of Michelle Obama - one commenter even goes as far to mention her extensive experience with "black girls from the South Side of Chicago" as a reason why she never trusted her. The Obama family is expected to walk a tightrope between perfection and practice that is difficult to achieve, and that will impact any public presentation of White House life. Hopefully, Givhan's book will include a heavier racial and gender analysis than presented in the WaPo excerpt, as the image being constructed around Michelle Obama has everything to do with the stereotypes applied to her.
'Michelle: Her First Year as First Lady' excerpt: The mom-in-chief effect [Washington Post]
Michelle Obama's 2010 Focus: Childhood Obesity [US News & World Report]