Some of the most heated conversations on the morning after election night centered on Michelle Obama’s dress. “I voted for Obama, but I didn’t vote for that dress,” homemaker and mother of three Jessica Bettencourt from Wisconsin told The New York Times. *
This video clip from the Daily Show, does a good job of illustrating a point I was trying to make the other day about the media’s focus concerning women in power. While the clip manages to highlight how far the role of first lady has come, even when compared to a few decades ago, it also shows the discrepancy between how women and men in power are treated.
Michelle Obama, former lawyer and Harvard graduate, has the ability to make great social progress by utilizing her position as First Lady… but how often do we hear about that on the news? Not nearly enough; especially when one considers the plethora of trivial articles written about her style decisions. Take the following sampling as an example:
MICHELLE OBAMA: FIRST LADY OF FASHION
Michelle Obama one smart First Lady
All eyes follow first fashionista Michelle Obama
A CALL TO (BARE) ARMS
First Lady Michelle Obama not baring arms today. Some outfit.
Michelle Obama: “Flashy” “Funnin’” or “Just Youthful”
Don’t be fooled by the headlines, these are all about fashion.
My favorite is Michelle Obama: Wonder Woman found via the Huffington Post. Why, you might ask, has Michelle been branded with this title of honor? Her career accomplishments? No. Her parenting skills? Nope. Her intelligence? Not quite.
“In her classic Jackie O sleeveless sheath dresses I think the First Lady has found a way to combine power and femininity, AND to convey strength without intimidating the hell out of much of white America — a balancing act so impressive she could teach tightrope walkers in the circus a thing or two.”**
Apparently all you need to be “Wonder Woman” in today’s society is a fashionable sleeveless dress.
Yes Michelle Obama dresses well (although I wouldn’t go as far as to equate her ability to put on a dress with having superpowers) but can we stop talking about it now? This hyper-focus on her fashion sense ignores the contributions that Michelle could be making to the world. For instance, she’s been working hard to promote volunteerism and yet those efforts are barely covered; I certainly hadn’t heard anything about her soup kitchen trip until I really started to research for this piece… yet my television and three newspapers quickly let me know that she’d worn a sleveless dress to the State of the Union and the implications of that dress.
Obviously there are exceptions, like this ABC News article that manages to talk about both the frivolous and the serious impact that a First Lady can have on the nation, but articles like these are far and few between the attention she gets for her wardrobe choices. One may argue that this is not harmful, and reporters are only writing about what people are most interested in… but I take issue with this.
At the risk of sounding like a “crazy feminist,” trivializing Michelle Obama by centering America’s focus on her wardrobe is, at its core, a tool of the patriarchal power-structure. By drawing America’s attention away from the outreach she has done, the media manages to lessen her percieved impact and power and make her more acceptable to those who fear having women in power. We’ve seen it done to Hilary, Sarah Palin, and countless others in the media.
Hillary Clinton’s Presidential run is the perfect example of this phenomena, with news anchors and even fellow politicians like John McCain coming out and calling her names like bitch and buck-toothed witch. Another great example is this delightful Slideshow entitled “Pretty in Mink: Conservative Leading Ladies” that reduces political figures into mink-wearing models. This is done because the patriarchal hierarchy that exists in American society is threatened by powerful women professionals, but not by ‘buck-toothed bitches’, ‘fashionistas’, and ‘sexy fur models.’
I’m not calling for you to focus on the ethical positions of models, or the educational background of your favorite actress… their job is style and performance, not nessecarily pushing social change (although many models and actresses are activists as well.) Fashion has its place in this world and does deserve attention; but women in power deserve to be judged first and foremost on their minds, just as men typically are.
We might not be able to change the media, but I challenge you to hold yourself accountable for getting all of the information. Seek out informative articles on powerful females, like Michelle Obama, to ensure that you are forming your opinions of them based on their abilities and contributions, not just what dress they wore last week.
* This quote didn’t fit into my article but it was too good not to just tack on to the beginning. Am I the only one who finds statements like this funny in the most ridiculous way?
**Apparently sleeves on a black woman intimidate the hell out of white America? I don’t even know how to address this point… I’m certainly not intimidated by anyone’s arms; covered or not, am I missing something?