Michelle-O Is Not Jackie-O

Enough with the clotheshorse talk, please

Hey, did you hear? Michelle Obama shops at J. Crew! And online, too! And she pays for her own clothes!

Wow. She. Is. So. Normal!

At least, that’s what the AP would have us take away from Obama’s appearance—during which she discussed much more than clothing—on The Tonight Show yesterday evening. Here’s the lede of the outlet’s widely picked-up summary of the appearance, helpfully headlined “Michelle Obama shops at J. Crew, buys online”:

No $150,000 wardrobe malfunctions for Michelle Obama.

“Actually, this is a J. Crew ensemble,” the wife of Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama told comedian Jay Leno on Monday on his talk show. She wore a yellow sweater, skirt and blouse ensemble.

“You can get some good stuff online,” she added.

Okay, so, clearly we have clothing on the brain right now. Most in the media are ready for this long, rather painful campaign just to be over with, already, and chatting about fashion and other frivolities is a frothy little distraction from our collective frustration. There comes a point when even the most information-hungry news consumer would choose US Weekly over The Week. So, you know, fair enough.

At the same time, though, the extent to which her clothing choices have dominated the media conversation about Obama is rather remarkable. We know, at this point, about Michelle’s fondness for sleeveless tops. We’re aware of her dislike for pantyhose. And of her preference for ballet flats. And of her affinity for Jackie-esque pearls. And of her in-many-ways-symbolic appreciation for the color purple. And how, for special occasions, she likes floral frocks from the Thailand-born designer Thakoon. And how, for normal occasions, she dresses her girls in clothing from the Gap and Limited Too and Target. And how, for herself, she shops at White House/Black Market, mainstay of strip malls the country over. And, now, how she shops—online!—at J. Crew.

Which is, on the one hand, all well and good. First Ladies, for better or worse, have always been looked to as national fashion ambassadors, and there’s nothing wrong, really, with noting Michelle’s style choices. But, um, within reason. As with everything else, it’s a matter of proportionality. Just for comparison, how much do we know about Obama’s days as a student at Princeton and Harvard? Or about the work she did as a corporate lawyer at Sidley Austin, the Chicago law firm where she met Barack? Or as an assistant to Mayor Daley? Or as executive director of Public Allies Chicago? Or as a vice president at the University of Chicago Medical Center?

Yeah. Comparably little.

This is, of course, by design. The Michelle-as-fashion-plate narrative is one the Obama campaign has been writing on behalf of its candidate’s wife for basically the past year, a narrative that conveniently eschews substance for carefully calibrated normalcy when it comes to the potential future First Lady. A smart, no-nonsense, Ivy-educated lawyer is a much less relatable figure, after all—per campaign calculations, anyway—than a Target-shopping Supermom. Why reveal intelligence (smarts are so alienating) when you can reveal common-sense fashion sense? “Mrs. Obama and her aides have carefully chosen her appearances on the national stage this fall, mostly selecting high-profile venues that are politically safe,” The New York Times notes in today’s profile of Obama’s political evolution. It continues,

As first lady, Obama advisers say, Mrs. Obama would focus first on her family and then on the issues facing women and military spouses as those groups deal with the economic crisis and the return of troops from Iraq. She also plans to take up national service as an issue, aides say. She will not have a major policy role, they say, and does not plan to have an office in the West Wing.

After declaring that “some of Senator Barack Obama‚Äôs advisers once viewed Mrs. Obama as an unpredictable force who sometimes spoke her mind a little too much” (how Victorian!), the piece goes on to note that “she is now regarded within the campaign as a disciplined and effective advocate for her husband.” And that she has “gone a long way toward addressing her greatest unstated challenge: making more voters comfortable with the idea of a black first lady.”

It’s probably true—and kudos to the Times for coming out and saying that, rather than couching Obama’s race in the familiar euphemisms (“otherness,” “relatability,” even “elitism”) that are as unhelpful in the context of political journalism as they are frustrating. Still, though, the subtext here—that Michelle would have to go out of her way to make people “comfortable” with the idea of her in the first place—says perhaps even more than the text itself. For all the ink spilled in the service of analyzing What Barack’s Race Means, Michelle has been navigating an even trickier course of racial implication. Lacking the mixed-racial identity that has to some extent insulated her husband from the fullness of stereotype when it comes to common conceptions of African-American men—and that has also provided physical foundations for Barack’s pretensions to post-racialism—Michelle is, in both the simplicity and the complexity of the term, African-American. Which is in turn only complicated, of course, by her being a woman.

Watching Michelle’s Tonight Show appearance, I couldn’t help but think back to the “softening tour” that she embarked on last summer to rehabilitate her image after ReallyProudOfMyCountryGate and TerroristFistJabGate and (the fictional) WhiteyGate and the like: the rather unfortunate media journey undertaken by the highly educated lawyer, business executive, and all-around Sassy Lady to prove to the American public that she is, you know, Just Like the Rest of Us. (She shops at Target! She loves Sex and the City! Et cetera!) As I said at the time, there’s something disturbing and disappointing and just a little bit disgusting about the whole thing, something distressing in the tour’s tacit admission that to make Michelle more “palatable” to the American electorate means to soften her, which means to feminize her, which means to minimize her wholeness as a person. Girly-girls and SuperMoms aren’t threatening to average Americans; high-achieving community activists, apparently, are. So why talk shop when you can talk shopping?

And the media have, paradoxically, amplified this narrative of reduction when it comes to Michelle. (Take the hour-long conversation she conducted with Larry King earlier this month—one of the few non-View or Access Hollywood or US Weekly interviews she’s granted—and the fact that the main takeaway of the conversation, per the mainstream press, was that Michelle wasn’t offended by McCain’s reference to her husband as “that one” in the presidential debate.) Ironically, it’s through their very tendency to siphon her spin that the media are doing a disservice to Michelle—and, less ironically, to the rest of us.

By focusing so readily, and so myopically, on Obama’s clothes—and, more broadly, by allowing the Obama campaign to drive the normalcy narrative when it comes to Michelle—the media are shirking their responsibility to inform us about the person who may well become First Lady. (And the fact that that’s a mostly symbolic office doesn’t mean we have less of a right to know its occupant.) In this, they’re cheating many Americans of a role model—and Michelle of her capacity to act as one. There’s much more to be reported about and discussed when it comes to Obama. The vast majority of which will be infinitely more interesting to learn about than where she buys her sweater sets.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.