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Saturday, July 20

Gapers Block

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I was two-thirds of the way through a piece on TIFs and the need for decentralized control of the city, when I picked up the tabloid pied piper, the "Bright One" Sun-Times, this morning. On the cover was a picture of Michelle Obama sitting on a stage, and the headline "Marketing Michelle Obama."

I had to have a say on this topic, despite my oath to not write about federal politics so long as we have enough work to do here in the city. (And also because I cannot stand the extent to which a class of media and public relations professionals has essentially infiltrated the political process to such a degree that elections are designed with that class as the constituency, instead of the people. I mean, has it never crossed your mind why media operations that receive billions of dollars of revenue from the political parties would ignore a candidate who hasn't raised sufficient millions of dollars to spend on... buying advertising from them? This is the type of conflict of interest that would make a city zoning attorney blush [see how I tied it back there?]. The federal political process has very little to do with democracy.)

Nevertheless, this issue at least relates to our day-to-day life in an interesting way. I'm probably going to be preaching largely to the converted in this space, I realize that. Nevertheless, it is worth pointing out that this entire "makeover" idea took a turn into dangerous as it headed to absurdity. Something absurd is basically harmless; the fact that it is absurd means nobody can take it seriously, even if they wanted to. What exactly has Michelle Obama done that she needs to be made over? The answer, I think is immediately obvious: she was born a woman.

But it is dishonest — and, worse, lazy — to just accuse "the media" of sexism. This isn't really a matter of sexism, it's a matter of authority, and it is not journalists and editors perpetuating it per se, but rather a corporate approach to information. The corporate approach to everything is authority. And obedience. The media establishment — the literally handful of media conglomerates that dominate public information in this country — don't operate in a vacuum. They operate according to a spirit of domination. Whether or not they actually convince themselves that what they're doing is "serving the needs" of "the consumers" (ie, "people") is immaterial. The fact of the matter is that public information has become about enforcing obedience in exchange for exposure. And an accomplished and intelligent woman like Michelle Obama should not have to have a "makeover." Paris Hilton needs a Michelle Obama makeover (I imagine that conversation starting with a phrase like, "For the love of God, respect yourself just a little bit").

Stop and consider for a moment that it is the media itself reporting on efforts to use the media to present a new "side" of Michelle Obama. How crazy is this? If they know that is what she's "trying" to do, how does the effort make any sense?

It makes sense because the current media system is about subjectivity and "consciousness-raising," not material reality and fact. Michelle Obama has to "be relatable." What does that mean? When I think of my mother, who has worked at hospitals most of her life while raising two kids, I don't think she feels particular close to a woman because they both shop at Target. "Relatability," like "Electability" or subjective nothings that give the media establishment immense power to enforce conformity.

Because who would push the idea that Michelle Obama wasn't "likable" or "relatable" if she didn't go on this demeaning "makeover" tour? The same media establishment — in fact, in a lot of cases, the exact same "journalists" — that are currently reporting and editorializing about her makeover tour.

When you run for an office of public trust, you do to a great extent agree to live a public life. You do this because you think you warrant the public trust to do what is right for the people; it is what free societies do to keep their leaders honest. This is vastly preferable, we should pause to note, to what unfree societies do to keep their leaders honest, which is either nothing or periodic, blood-soaked uprisings. But the "femininity" or "womanness" as defined by — the 1950s? I guess? — has nothing to do with the qualifications for holding office. Some would say because she is actively campaigning for her husband. But this is hardly fair; the context of Michelle Obama's advocacy for her husband is as a proxy (to stand in for him) not as an public figure in her own right, using that authority to make a case for someone else.

Why is Michelle Obama in need of a makeover (as opposed to say, Laura Bush)? She's a young woman, first of all. She's an Ivy League-educated young woman, secondly. And, of course, she's a professional, Ivy League-educated woman. You get the sense from Michelle Obama that if she was still Michelle Robinson, she'd be at the top of her game wherever she was. The "makeover tour" is not about making Michelle Obama seem nice, it's about making her seem more "womanly" (or, really, wifely). And you can bet this has more to do with how men perceive Senator Obama than how women view Michelle Obama.

In her Vindication of the Rights of Woman, Mary Wollstonecraft brilliantly dissected arguments for women's "natural" domesticity, although some of her arguments would seem antiquated today. If you pause to consider the adverb "domesticity" and its relationship to the verb "domesticated," you can appreciate the enormous task Wollstonecraft faced in Vindication. The heart of her argument was essentially that the state of "domestic" subservience enforced on women made society less moral, not more moral, because so long as one group of humankind was kept forcibly from public participation, the group that benefitted from their servitude would not be forced to account for their leadership:

There must be more equality established in society, or morality will never gain ground, and this virtuous equality will not rest firmly even when founded on a rock, if one half of mankind be chained to its bottom by fate, for they will be continually undermining it through ignorance, or pride.

The result is a practical Catch-22; women in public must show that they aren't too "forceful" or "grating" — but lack of those very qualities are cited, through increasingly euphemistic phrasing, for why they aren't natural leaders of others, or why people can't get "used" to them in positions of authority. Because Hillary Clinton was a candidate, she got caught in the trap. She couldn't afford to go on a "makeover" tour of her own without reinforcing the very typecasting that would keep her from getting elected in the first place. Not that that was why she lost, but it happened nevertheless.

On what authority do we accept "facts" like this:

Evelyn Simien, a political scientist at the University of Connecticut, said Obama is wise to stress her "Suzy Homemaker side" because "it's the side that married women can relate to. She's got to be strategic."

I don't know how accurately Evelyn Simien was quoted in that Sun-Times article, but this is dismal reasoning. How do we "know" that married women (a bloc of humanity that encompasses well over 50 percent of women of all races, religions, and social classes over the age of 15) can only relate to a woman who complains about panty hose and talks about where she shops? Do you think that a married woman in Inverness relates the same way to a political figure as a married woman in Tunica, Mississippi? No. "Married woman" as an interest group does not exist. The "married woman" as someone you need to relate to does not exist. It is an idealistic, made up nothing, an artificial standard imposed on women in politics and government and in positions of authority generally.

Months ago, supposedly "brilliant" poster Frank Luntz revealed himself to the obvious fraud that thinking people have known him to be for years. Luntz is the boy-wonder who supposedly created the grammar of the 1994 Republican "Revolution," the Contract with America. He has since gone on to a lucrative career advising Republicans and appearing as a talking head "expert" on the opinions of the "average" of American. But of course, there is no such person as the "average" American. Luntz's real purpose as part of the Fox News propaganda operation was not to report opinions but to create them by arbitrarily assigning them to "average Americans." He was exposed when bloggers discovered that he had used "undecided American" actors to repeat talking points about the candidates after debates. In the same way, "Suzy Homemaker" becomes the "married woman." But there is nothing that necessarily connects the two.

Tell me: who undermines the institution of marriage more? Homosexuals who want access to it? Or a power structure that associates getting married with submitting to the authority of another person?

Certainly lots of people reading this are saying, "So, what? Is this new?" And of course it isn't. But what makes it more immediately obvious is the way that the media continues with the charade despite the fact that they are explicitly aware that it is a charade. Is the point of a public relations effort to convince people that something is true? Or is it to just satisfy a requirement of conformity? If Michelle Obama (or whoever) told a group of reporters, "I'm happily married because I love my children and husband, and while I don't choose to work in the home, people should be free to arrange their own home life," would married women revolt?

Or, would contingents in the media fabricate a "scandal" and start to rhetorically ask everybody within shouting distance, "Is Michelle Obama insulting married women!?"

Which seems more likely?

Seventy percent of women with children under the age of 18 are employed outside the home. Starting with this fact (and it is a fact), would you assume that the "average" American woman would be scandalized by a woman who sought to establish herself in a career, excel in her profession, and fight for social causes she believed in, while raising two daughters? To accept that fact, you would have to accept that the "average" American woman loathes her life outside the home and considers "Suzy Homemaker" to be a role model, or the only way another woman can relate to her. Because if 10 women, unknown to each other, are ever in the same place, the only thing we can reasonably expect them to talk about are their children, shopping at Target, and what their perfect date is.

The standard is artificial and, as stated earlier, has more to do with making women like Michelle Obama "obey" than it has to do, strictly speaking, with sex. One wonders, also: is the Suzy Homemaker thing more about making men comfortable with Michelle Obama, rather than women? Did John Kerry suffer because he was seen as a weakling — in part because he was married to a woman like Theresa Heinz Kerry?

It gets too conspiratorial at this point, so we'll drop it; but it is at least an interesting intellectual exercise to consider; does the First Lady makeover tour have more to do with assuaging men's concerns about the type of man the candidate is than the type of woman the First Lady is? A little too adorable a premise, so we'll leave it alone. But, reasonably speaking, does it take more self-confidence, charm and ambition for a man to marry a strong-willed, presumably picky woman like Michelle Obama? Or a docile "domesticated" woman?

The Obama campaign can't be faulted for following the Piper's tune. But let's don't forget that the Piper took all those kids into a cave at the end of that story.

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mike / July 2, 2008 2:56 AM

We are continually forced to watch as our media re-hashes and re-molds minorities and women of authority, let alone minority women.

I wonder how much of this affects girls today, let's say those aged 10-17 - a generation bred under a norm of female authority and a norm of almost limitless media sources.
If I were to be optimistic, I would say our next generation of women will find the Old Media irrelevant. Less so, and I do believe it may be up to our generation (20's-30's) to pry Old Media's green, controlling hands off of our politics and living rooms.

Let's revamp democracy through the Daily! Each neighborhood with a online Daily!

Kenzo / July 2, 2008 4:55 PM

To remedy his burden of being married to an independent woman, Barack needs to get caught in an affair to show the world how manly he truly is. The Republicans can then plot against him, making him a martyr and therefore, more beloved. However, they can use this opportunity to reorganize a "values-oriented" backlash and steal the presidency in 2016.They will then use this as a chance to take advantage of a catastrophe and use our unfettered imperial powers to annex ourselves another client state.Then we can hope for change again in 2024.

Or we can stick to the issues and vote in accordance to our own best interests.

However, the former gives the green light to the media to print the words "oral sex" on the front page of newspapers.

Charlotte Lynn / July 2, 2008 6:20 PM

Ramsin, you are dead on with your theory that Michelle Obama's "Suzy Homemaker" makeover has much more to do with making her palatable to men than "relatable" to women.

And as far the question: "Does it take more self-confidence, charm and ambition for a man to marry a strong-willed, presumably picky woman like Michelle Obama? Or a docile "domesticated" woman?"...

It's very obviously the former. I'd like to believe that most women feel that way. One of the reasons I've been comfortable with Obama's views towards women is precisely because he married a strong, smart, accomplished and outspoken woman like Michelle. He sought an equal in a partner. Up until recently, Michelle Obama as she truly is hasn't been an issue.

As an unabashed feminist and as someone who appreciates authenticity in everything, I confess to feeling slightly offended by the Obamas' willingness to acquiesce to fallacious societal standards created by the media. You are correct. There is simply NOT a discernible group of people called "married women" who respond in the same way to other married women. The real hurdle here is middle class, white, married males who usually vote. That coveted "Nascar Dad" demographic.

If Obama's campaign is dim enough to think it's worth kowtowing to that group and attempting to overcome the "angry black woman" stereotype with the "Suzy Homemaker" one, I just don't know what to say. The response from the Obama campaign on a number of issues in the past 2 weeks has been pretty underwhelming. I suppose this is no exception.

*Sigh*. Let the watering down of the rhetoric and the resulting loss in November begin.

C-Note / July 6, 2008 8:43 AM

Re: NEWSFLASH -- "The political process has very little to do with democracy."

Absolutely right. I'll never argue with that one.

And Charlotte Lynn: I'm sure everyone's genuinely concerned about your psychic loss as a result of Michelle's watered-down "authenticity," but seriously, you really ought to think harder about the realities of campaign strategy, and realize that her "authenticity" matters very little, unfortunately or not -- until her husband wins the election. Except to feminists, who of course like to draw battle lines over this kind of thing.

michellegh2004 / July 7, 2008 5:35 PM

Sadly, Republican women aren't considered "in need" of a makeover--it's the Dem wives that get caught in this trap. Nancy Reagan? The astrology was just a quirky California thing. Barbara Bush? America's grandmother--although many on the campaign trail have related how imperious she was/is and her comments about the Katrina survivors in Houston would have had far more play had she been a Democrat. Laura Bush? Well, she's just a down-home librarian (never mind that she had the poor judgment to marry such a...well, this is about the women). Hillary was slammed from the beginning, Tipper Gore was seen as the "censorship lady," and Theresa Heinz was always considered eccentric and crazy. But nothing will happen to change things unless less conventional candidates (yes, I'm considering Obama less conventional, despite his major-party nomination) can get elected. Sometimes getting elected means making deals with the devil or Madison Avenue. Small price to pay, I think for getting elected in this post-modern world.

Greyhoos / July 8, 2008 10:55 AM

I can't really contribute anything that hasn't already been touched on by those commenting about, because everybody's pretty spot-on will their assessments.

We've seen this before -- specifically in 1992, with Bill Clinton's campaign. Too many people found Hillary intimidating, so the strategists decided a rehab was in order. Next thing you know, she's turning up on the cover of Redbook or Ladies Home Journal or something like that -- in the kitchen, wearing an apron, baking cookies. As in: "Hey everybody, lookie here. The little missuz didn't totally forsake the homestead for the law firm...she can still Betty-Crocker with the best of 'em!"

I will point out, however, that attributing all of this to a "middle class, white, married males"/ "Nascar Dad" demographic is a bit of an overgeneralisation, and slightly inaccurate. In some so-called "Red States," the sorts of attitudes towards women's roles that are being addressed here tend to cut across all sorts of lines -- economic, racial, and even -- in some cases -- partisan lines. There are still considerable segments of the U.S. population that still cling to/maintain more "traditional" ideas of what a woman's role is/should be. Indeed, a good many of them are "Nascar Dads" and "Promise Keepers" and "values voters" (and, I might add, their submissive spouses) and whatnot. But these sorts of attitudes are -- unfortunately -- not entirely limited to conveniently labeled demographic niches of that sort.

Things is, the topic may be neither here nor there. The places where these sorts of traditionalist attitudes are clung to the most tenaciously is in the Deep South/"Bible Belt" states; where people aren't generally -- despite the day & age -- highly likely to vote for Obama in large numbers in the first place. (And I say that as someone who grew up there.)

Greyhoos / July 8, 2008 11:26 AM

And let me make one thing clear...

With my prior comments, I was in no way disparaging cookies. Or the baking of same. Far from it.

Ramsin / July 8, 2008 12:17 PM

Greyhoos, I agree that this has nothing to do with any demographic or party (e.g., Republicans/NASCAR dads want Suzie Homemaker); it has to do with the a media conglomerate that does not want to relinquish their newfound control of the political process.

I really don't think NASCAR dads would condition their vote on what a candidate's wife was like; it may factor in to how they vote, but if you're going to vote based on a guy's wife, you were just looking for an excuse not to vote for him. Nor do I think it is specific to Republicans. This has everything to do with a system bent on domination, not the casual attitudes of non-existent demographic niches.

C-Note / July 8, 2008 7:54 PM

I think you guys are on to something - I apologize if somebody already said it, but I think the interest in Michelle Obama, in light of the different sort of attention given to other potential First Ladies is racial code for "can a black woman be a First Lady?" I mean, as far as I know, Mrs. Obama's never been a dope addict or stolen to support a habit, but I haven't heard much mention of this aspect of Mrs. McCain's resume, or even questions about her fitness for the "job." But I guess that question's preempted on account of the current President's prior (present?) predilections.


About the Author(s)

Ramsin Canon studies and works in politics in Chicago. If you have a tip, a borderline illegal leak, or a story that needs to be told, contact him at

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