Last night I thought sleepily: If Michelle Obama is going to speak to the women of America, she better darn well do it before 10 pm [ET]. As 10 p.m. came and went, I grappled for the remote and was about to turn off the television when her bio video began to air. Okay, maybe I could last a few more minutes, see the top of the speech, get the feel of it, and go to sleep -- because really, how interesting ever are these canned, cynical speeches by candidates wives? (The eccentric Teresa Heinz Kerry aside: I thought our country missed out on a highly entertaining First Lady by rejecting her husband).
But from the moment Michelle Obama began to speak, I realized we were witnessing something historic -- and unrelated to the fact she is an African American. Michelle Obama is the first woman to embrace/embody a post-feminist view of a presidential spouse.
Think of it this way: When was the last time a nominee's wife stepped forward to assert her children and her marriage were more important and satisfying to her than her career? Indeed, to speak of the necessity of putting her career aside for her husband's political ambition--and to do so without a whiff of resentment? Heck, when was the last time you saw a candidate's wife- -any politician's wife! -- proclaim her love for her husband without that husband having been caught cheating on her first? And to do all this without driving the media into a hissy fit: "OMG she's setting women's rights back a generation!"
For neither is Michelle Obama some retro caricature of a "desperate housewife." How could she be, with her pumped figure, her confident, outspoken manner, and the way she sometimes looks, when goaded, like she's chewing on marbles? This is not a woman to be messed with. This is not a woman who feels inferior to her husband. This is not a woman without ambition or dreams. But she seems to possess the modern understanding that women's ambitions and dreams aren't always realized on a straight trajectory; that marriage and family are as much a part of those ambitions and dreams as a promotion or job title; and that when a husband succeeds politically, it does not negate her importance but amplifies it.
It was refreshing, too, to see a woman on the convention's stage wearing a soft, sexy dress. This is more post-feminism. Call it the "Sex and the City" effect. I've been struck by how many young career women today eschew the boxy suits and sensible heels of their female bosses for fitted dresses, high heels, and low necklines. There seems to be no contradiction in their minds that they can be effective at what they do in their public lives, but still be feminine and unabashedly open about attracting male attention.
Thus one of the most striking aspects of Michelle Obama is seemingly the most superficial: the sundresses she's worn throughout the campaign. I was simply transfixed by the sight of her in that girlish, black-and-white number she wore on "The View" -- girlish except for the powerful, trim triceps poking through the armholes. It was like looking at a lioness wearing something Paris Hilton would put on her chihuahua.
We hear often of women shattering glass ceilings, but Michelle Obama has shattered a plaster mold: the mold that casts all female public figures -- and potential First Ladies -- into either/or figures. You are EITHER an independent career woman in your own right (Hillary Clinton) OR a traditionally minded woman in the background of an ambitious man, the shadow in pearls (Cindy McCain; Laura Bush). You are NOT this hot, buff mother at a lectern moving a crowd to tears with your force and passion.
I'm not trying to idealize Michelle Obama. The speech was carefully crafted. It of course had a political agenda. And as with any political family, we have no idea what goes on in the Obama household or private life. We have no idea what she's really thinking when she closes her eyes at night.
Still, it's the public image that interests me. And Michelle Obama has just upgraded that image into one we GenExers can identify with and admire.
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