Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Michelle Obama Gone Mute?

I guess outfits speak louder than words. That seems to be Michelle Obama’s new philosophy as she snuggles into her duties as America’s First Lady. Maybe it was the coffee conversation with the Bushes, who clued her into the Commandments of political wifedom: Commandment #1: Thou shall not speak, but sit pretty and wave relentlessly. So far, so good. I just hope she has Laura Bush on speed dial to tell her how to get the plastic smile off her face when its time for bed. Or for advice on what to do when her panty hose ride up and there’s nowhere in sight to pick the wedgie.

Yes, I know. Being a Lady tougher than it looks.

Take for instance, her new role as the countries fashion icon. Media hooplah over her inauguration clothing was excessive to the point of ridiculous; from CNN celebrity stylist commentary, to exclusive interviews with the designers of the “lemon grass” skirt suit and white chiffon ball gown she wore for Inauguration Day.

Of course, I expected this surplus of superficiality, just not so soon. As put it, “We couldn't put off the tired old women-as-pretty-arm-candy discussion until the inauguration stage was taken down?”

Nope. Before President Obama was even sworn in, Michelle had already been validated as Barack’s Barbie Doll. A woman so disciplined in femininity that she could--as they kept insisting over and over again-- brave the bitter cold and blisters of Pennsylvania Avenue in the holy name of fashion. A woman eager to fill the shimmery Cinderella shoes of the Jackie Kennedys and Nancy Regans: legs crossed and lips closed.

During a dance at an inaugural ball, a CNN spokeswoman claimed Michelle was actually “the boss” of the marriage, giving her husband the official orders. But unless they communicate through telepathy, it’s more likely to be the other way around.

It’s got to be saddening for Michelle, on some level to know that even as a Harvard Law and Princeton grad, or lawyer at the Sidley Austin firm whose articulate and equally eloquent self-written speeches helped seal her husband’s Presidency--she is now just a pretty wife, waving and smiling.

But on another level, she probably believes she is being racially progressive. She is trying to show the world that the black woman, too, can be intelligent, charming, elegant and poised. This strategy harks back to the election, where she played the humbling homemaker to shake media perceptions of “the angry black woman”. Like on the Ellen Dengeneres show, where she used “wife, mother, and down-to-earth” to describe herself, confining to female gender norms to stretch across the mainstream.

And now that the Obamas have to represent the American family, they are playing it safe; doing the cookie-cutter patriarchy thing, a political recreation of the Cosby Show, which makes having black people in the White House a little less frightening for the right wing.

Michelle’s ability to be the silent version of Clair Huxtable (minus the career) is the key factor in walking the American tight rope between Scary Black Woman and relative normalcy. But rather than pledging allegiance to the haggard script of Proper First Lady Behavior, she should use the limelight to offer alternative perceptions of black women that don’t exclude an assertive voice. And then she should walk out of the White House wearing a “Give Bush a Wedgie” T-shirt, sweat pants, and Spongebob toe socks.