Barack Obama’s second inauguration took place nearly a month ago, and I’ve been mulling over a blog post ever since. It struck me at the time that the news media were focusing on elements of the event that were of no real importance. That’s not surprising. The 24/7 news cycle has reduced many newsworthy stories into tiny soundbites for rapid consumption. But I was still disappointed to see that one of the topics the television media could not seem to stop discussing had to do with Michelle Obama’s appearance. Michelle Obama, you see, now has bangs.
This fascination is nothing new. Television journalists, talk show hosts, and bloggers alike have been talking about Michelle Obama’s hair, her wardrobe and her toned arms for more than four years now. And I’m certainly not going to argue that Michelle Obama isn’t beautiful, fashionable or fit. She is all of those things. But when we focus on Michelle Obama’s looks, what we are ignoring are her accomplishments. We are not discussing her intellect. And we are most definitely not discussing her role in U.S. politics.
This phenomenon is not unique to the current First Lady. Hillary Clinton was routinely mocked for her pantsuits and hairbands during her husband’s time in office. Even while serving as a profoundly effective, and well-respected, Secretary of State, her appearance was regularly subject to ridicule.
Although there are clearly many elements at play here, I would argue that part of the problem is the very role of First Lady. The fact that there is an official position reserved for the (female) spouse of the President is part of what reduces Michelle Obama to her wardrobe or her hair. Because a U.S. President’s wife is expected to fulfill so many official duties, she is required to abandon her career (Michelle Obama is a Harvard-educated lawyer) in order to support her husband in his presidential role.
In Canada, the wife of the Prime Minister is much less visible than the U.S. First Lady. Part of this has to do with our constitutional monarchy: our governor-general (who represents the Queen) performs ceremonial duties that are often carried out by the U.S. President and First Lady in America. The result is that the Prime Minister’s wife is not the most visible woman in Canadian politics. In fact, Laureen Harper keeps a rather low profile. Our long-serving former PM, Jean Chretien, had (and still has) a very private spouse. Many Canadians had difficulty even coming up with Aline Chretien’s first name (that is, until she confronted an intruder at 24 Sussex while the PM slept).
My point is this: when the most visible woman in a country’s politics is the leader’s wife, her role as spouse (or mom-in-chief) inevitably overshadows her own professional accomplishments, her intellect, or her political potential. And this makes it seem much more acceptable to discuss what she is wearing, rather than what she has to say.