Thank goodness for the Internet. After all, if it weren’t for blog posts criticizing Michelle Obama’s choices in dinner dresses, I might erroneously think that most people are productive members of society or something.
Her most recent trespass, God forbid, would be wearing a red dress to greet Chinese President Hu Jintao on Jan. 19. As one asker on Yahoo! Questions frames the offense, “How hideous was Michelle Obama’s commie red dress the other night?”
I tried to revisit the question for this column, but it was deleted for not adhering to “community standards.” Those standards are probably for people not to be stupid.
And frankly, no one really cares. Or at least that would have been my first thought, had I not first noticed that this incident has somehow wormed its way into gossip and news sources alike. (As if this preoccupation wasn’t painful enough on its own, a senescent Joan Rivers has to add to the absurdity of the situation by joking, “We used to have Jackie O, now we have Blackie O!”)
The general public’s obsession with reviewing every article of clothing the first lady puts on reveals that women in politics still face certain gender hurdles to date — namely, to achieve evaluation based on merit and not appearances.
A 2008 Huffington Post column by media executive Bonnie Fuller, which reviews the dress Obama donned for her first White House visit, is particularly upsetting. The downhill slope begins with the first line, which reads: “Michelle O. made the power statement of her political career yesterday, and she did it without uttering a word.”
While it might be a catchy opening, the only possible way I can interpret this statement is that female politicians are best seen, not heard — and incredibly, it only gets worse from there. Fuller offers a list of points in support of Obama’s dress choice, with the third being, “She is powerful, but she is not threatening.” That statement alone suggests that for women in Washington, there’s but a fine line separating the two.
Fuller (who formerly served as editor of notorious chick mags Glamour and Cosmopolitan and thus is clearly an authority on these matters) goes on to suggest that Obama chose a dress rather than a suit in order to tone down her self-assertive image: “ever since she began getting criticized, like many smart working women, because she seemed “too strong,” Michelle has made The Dress her uniform ... A suit strikes [Americans] as too cold, too impersonal and too ambitious.”
Fuller concedes that these perceptions are unfair but suggests that Obama must have felt that it “wasn’t worth fighting the battle” and that it was more important to “reinforce her image as a mom versus an executive.”
Moving on to the fourth point: “She will be Barack’s Best Friend and Life Partner, not his political partner.” This assumption, which shoves Michelle Obama back into a gender role stereotype that she actively eludes, seems to be drawn out of thin air. She has been a central figure in policy-making, pushing the economic stimulus bill and heading a campaign against childhood obesity within her first year in the White House.
Others are reading into her wardrobe in a different, but somehow even more baffling manner. Just last week, a brilliant commenter remarks on the ABCNews blog that by choosing a red dress, Obama was sending a political message and tacitly condoning China’s disagreeable policies: “we needn’t support the human rights violations that their communist leaders commit, and not wearing red at a celebration of their leader in our country would have been a nice way to separate ourselves from that.”
This is certainly not the first time right-wing crazies have tried to eke out nonexistent political messages from Obama’s wardrobe choices, either. In July of last year, a certain infamous political commentator raved about a black and white dress she wore while visiting the shore during the oil spill, insisting that it was her way of making a petty mockery of the situation. Yeah, thanks again for your profound insight, Glenn Beck.
Unlike Fuller and evidently vast numbers of crazy people on the Internet, I would interpret Obama’s clothing choices to be a restatement of her strength rather than a sanding down of her self-assertive image. If Fuller’s observation that Obama has been wearing dresses more often is correct, it’s not a sign of submission. It seems to be more like saying, I do what thousands of male politicians do while wearing a skirt, while raising two children, while dealing with the odious nickname “mom in chief.”
But as frivolous as this all is, the absurd levels of attention directed to something as trivial as Obama’s clothing serves to show that contemporary female politicians continue to face a struggle in reconciling their gender and career identities. The reality, however, is that strength and femininity are not mutually exclusive. Michelle Obama, regardless of whether you loved or hated that commie red dress, undeniably achieves both.
Editorials Editor Catherine Cai is a College junior from Atlanta.