It must be very strange to be Michelle Obama. You are intelligent, capable, you have opinions and charisma, and yet you are fundamentally mute—your public utterances are scripted and tightly controlled. You are allowed to talk about broccoli and children’s exercise, and safe, non-inflammatory topics.
The only time the public sees the Michelle Obama fire, thrillingly, is when she is on the campaign stump for her husband. Even when scripted by the Democrat wordsmiths, she is a stirring, natural orator.
But for the moment, while she plays the decorative, must-never-offend consort, it’s Obama’s fashion choices and hair that are picked over, as if we were all ogling her at some hellish Stepford drinks party. Her clothes do the talking, rather than her voice.
And so to Saudi Arabia, where, with her husband and a bunch of other American muckety-mucks sucking up to the new regime following the death of King Abdullah, Obama did not wear a headscarf or veil. This prompted criticism that she was showing disrespect to the host country where many women wear niqabs.
The Washington Post reported that more than 1,500 tweets using the hashtag #ميشيل_أوباما_سفور (translated roughly, “#Michelle_Obama_unveiled”; other tweets substituted “immodest” for “unveiled”) were sent Tuesday.
Of course she was not being immodest, and in her long-sleeved, body-covering clothes was following an example set by Laura Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and other high-profile Western women who have visited the country. Obama’s clothing choice was respectful.
Well, if Obama was making a point, good for her. It was, in the moment, a neat sartorial middle-finger payback for the procession of male dignitaries who rudely walked past her, either not acknowledging her or not shaking her hand.
Because she is not at liberty to say, just the sight of her standing there sporting an her expression which could be a resting-weary face any of us might have was read as her being annoyed at how she was being treated.
No one knows if Michelle Obama was consciously making a political or cultural point. The irritating problem with not saying anything is that world creates narratives for you.
If you choose to read it as so, Obama’s attire was also a more overarching repudiation of the secondhand status of women, as enshrined in Saudi law, where women cannot drive, cannot vote (although they can in local council elections for the first time this year), cannot go swimming, cannot go out without a male chaperone, or try on clothes when shopping. The list goes on, and is depressing.
That fashion can be used to convey power, or a message, isn’t new. The queen’s uniform, handbag balanced in the crook of her arm, is her signature; when Diana, Princess of Wales, stepped out in a knockout black Christina Stambolian dress after Prince Charles confessed his adultery, it conveyed its own breezy, emphatic message of “I’m gonna wash that man right out of my hair” independence. During her 11 years in office, Margaret Thatcher transitioned from pussycat bows to power suits.
Like many women proximate to power who feel they must watch what they say, Obama has learned to communicate in what she wears.
Her clothes, as on Tuesday, can be perceived to make a remarkably prescient statement, especially somewhere where human rights are so despicably trampled as Saudi Arabia, where most recently the blogger Raif Badawi faces 10 years in jail and 1,000 lashes. But all of this political and cultural baggage is projected on to her, as it has been throughout her time in the White House.
In America, even with the kind of legislative and coalescing cultural equality Saudi women can only dream of (even if we are still fighting to safeguard those rights), Michelle Obama’s presence is symbolic. She is warm, quick, funny, yet for some foggy reason the wives and partners of the powerful are required to know that their place alongside their powerful partner’s side is essentially decorative.
In Britain, Kate Middleton fulfills the same sidekick role alongside Prince William: a young woman who smiles, collects flowers, wears nice dresses, and is always there by her husband’s side to shake hands and make small talk on command.
We rightly criticize Saudi Arabia for its human rights abuses and its appalling attitude to women, but our culture insists that Obama, a mature woman with opinions and many achievements, stays meek, de-opinionated, and verbally neutered alongside her husband. We read and try to decode her fashion choices just as keenly here, as without a veil in Saudi Arabia.
If you felt outraged on Obama’s behalf that she was treated shabbily in Saudi Arabia, you must also recognize that at home she is also tightly proscribed in what she says, does, and wears. Both America and Britain operate restrictive reins on what is considered acceptable conduct and speech of the first lady and future queen.
It’s the “Lady Macbeth” fear—the whispering—in-the-ear, power-behind-the-throne, behind-every-great-man set of stereotypes—that dictates the suspicion of the wives of the powerful.
Hillary Clinton was rounded upon when Bill Clinton appointed her chair of the task force devising health-care reform in 1993. She fell foul of the media for not adopting the correct, weepy responses when scandals threatened to derail him. Any first lady seeking to pursue an independent role for herself is negotiating a minefield.
Have there been focus groups done on this? Are scenarios presented to the public, like “Mr. Obama has had a busy day working on Middle East issues. He and his wife are eating dinner. He mentions his day. How would you like his wife to respond?
a) “Darling, that sounds challenging. Strategically, have you thought about exploring a different set of options, like…?”
b) “Darling, poor you. Is this apple pie crust too flaky?”
It would seem the public, on the strength of first ladies’ public images, prefer scenario b).
As with Hillary Clinton, one wonders if Obama herself will one day run for public office and attain power and influence in her own right. If so, that may gratifyingly happen under a Hillary Clinton presidency.
Whatever the case, after yet another day of playing the pliant, smiling consort, one hopes Obama turns to her husband and says, “After this is all over, the next eight years are all about me.” And in those eight years, maybe her voice will be allowed to make the statements rather than her wardrobe.