First Lady Michelle Obama has made history in innumerable ways. She is the first Black First Lady, a two-time Ivy League graduate and a lawyer, and she has taken the First Lady position, which has always been a figurehead one, and given it depth and significance.
“Everything we do is by choice,” she told Van Meter, who wrote about her for Vogue. “I could have spent eight years doing anything, and at some level, it would have been fine. I could have focused on flowers. I could have focused on decor. I could have focused on entertainment. Because any First Lady, rightfully, gets to define her role. There’s no legislative authority; you’re not elected. And that’s a wonderful gift of freedom.”
Though her tenure as First Lady has been successful, she is ready for it to be done: “It’s time. I think our democracy has it exactly right: two terms, eight years. It’s enough. Because it’s important to have one foot in reality when you have access to this kind of power,” she told Meter.
Meter followed Michelle Obama around for a month in the process of writing about her for the December Vogue issue. (She is on the cover.) He wrote that as First Lady, she accepted “a job with no salary, a platform with no power” and turned it around.
Most of the world recognizes her by her accomplishments over the past eight years, of which there are many, including but not limited to her two education initiatives, Let Girls Learn and Reach Higher, and her health initiatives to combat childhood obesity. She also is known to lead by example. (Her fondness for SoulCycle immediately comes to mind.) On a lighter note, she’s been known to dance, sing and rap on segments like “Carpool Karaoke” with late-night host James Corden.
Above all, though, the First Lady is known for her grace, elegance and impeccable style.
However, for every group that recognizes Michelle Obama’s value and seeks to elevate her, there are others who strive to bring her down. Many of the latter are right-wing conservatives.
In two now-famous interviews with NPR’s Al Shapiro during the 2012 presidential election, Virginia voter Bobbie Lussier, at an event for Mitt Romney, summed up how Republicans view the First Lady. “I mean, can you imagine, you know, Kennedys or the Bushes or anybody doing push-ups on the floor?” Lussier said. “I mean, you know. That’s just not a First Lady. … They talk about more like her dresses and how she looks and stuff and her arms and whatever. … You see her walking around in shorts, and you know, just real casual wear.”
One of Michelle Obama’s main platforms has been healthy eating and exercise. That someone would criticize her for doing push-ups – in an appropriate setting, no less – or showing her shoulders is ridiculous and unconscionable. (In fact, it was Ellen Degeneres who challenged Mrs. Obama to a push-up contest while on the former’s talk show.) Although (and possibly because) Mrs. Obama is unquestionably one of the most educated First Ladies the United States has ever had, she has repeatedly been put down for her outward appearance over the course of her husband’s two presidential terms. Ironically, First Lady Jackie Kennedy, wife of President John F. Kennedy and world-renowned for her fashion, beauty and grace who was referenced by Lussier, also wore sleeveless dresses.
Melania Trump, the wife of president-elect Donald Trump, has received no such criticism from Republicans, right-wingers or conservatives for not being a suitable future First Lady based on her appearance, despite the fact that the former model has done a number of photoshoots in which she has shown quite a bit more than just her shoulders, sometimes even baring it all in nude photographs.
This discrepancy seems to indicate that Michelle Obama’s Blackness is the reason for the immense and unwarranted criticism. One of racism’s many symptoms is the reducing of all of Michelle Obama’s many and impressive accomplishments. It says white women like Melania Trump can be far less educated and far less accomplished but still fit the Western ideal of what a woman should be (white, conventionally attractive). Thus, Trump can do whatever she pleases, free of right-wing criticism.
A few months ago, a political cartoon depicted Michelle Obama and Melania Trump side by side. Obama is drawn as a man, an old racist trope that comes from the place that Black women are so ugly and monstrous compared to white women that we have no femininity at all. Meanwhile, Trump is shown as a smiling, gown-wearing beauty pageant contestant. The caption says “Make the First Lady great again,” because clearly an Ivy League graduate who told Vogue that public service and helping others will always be a part of her life, who has raised two healthy and well-behaved children (one of whom was accepted into Harvard!) and who has accomplished so much over the course of her life, isn’t “great” to conservatives. Only white women, however uneducated and unaccomplished, are allowed that title.