Michelle Obama Can't Please Everybody

Is Michelle Obama a "feminist nightmare?" That's the charge hurled in the subtitle of this Politico cover feature on the First Lady. But don't judge the whole piece by that — incendiary subtitle aside, what follows is actually a thoughtful, thorough article about American women's expectations for Michelle Obama, the impossibility of her living up to all of them, and why she's walked the public path she's has these past five years.

First ladies tend "to get swept up in the debate du jour over how much progress women are (or are not) making in our society," notes writer Michelle Cottle. Yet people wanting Obama to take up more serious and policy-oriented causes than exercising, gardening and healthy eating should move on — it's not happening. The "Ivy-educated, blue-chip law firm-trained first lady" isn't "going to morph into an edgier, more activist" leader just because we wish she'd break the first lady mold. And maybe if we can move past who we want her to be, we'll see the importance in the work Mrs. Obama is actually doing.

Michelle Obama’s status as the first African-American First Lady raised hopes that she would focus a spotlight on the myriad problems eating away at minority communities. At the same time, her Ivy League degrees, career success and general aura as an ass-kicking, do-it-all superwoman had some women fantasizing that she would, if not find a clever way to revive the 2-for-1 model pitched by the Clintons so long ago, at least lean in and speak out on a variety of tough issues.

Instead, she said her most important role is "mom-in-chief" and working on issues like childhood obesity and healthy eating. And apparently some women (and some feminists) feel like she's letting us down.

With poor health being one of the biggest issues (social and economic) in 21st century America, I'm not sure why people act like food, health, and physical fitness are these sort of trivial, fluffy women's issues. We may devalue them because they're associated with women, but that's actually pretty important stuff. Still, people do see these as a less threatening agenda. Is Obama's decision to concentrate on them a personal choice or a political move?

Cottle suggests it's just Michelle doing Michelle, but offers plenty of counter-evidence. Meanwhile, some say Michelle's real talent or legacy lies in sly and graceful perception-changing.

“Black women are perceived as more argumentative, contentious, fists in the air,” said feminist author Rebecca Walker. In grappling with those perceptions, “I wouldn’t necessarily say Michelle Obama had to kowtow to some demand that she become a June Cleaver type. I would say she understands the need to help people understand a model that they may not have been familiar with, and to help them learn how to trust something that they may not have been able to in past.”

Perhaps Michelle Obama's greatest achievement as first lady will be providing the whole nation with a positive model of black womanhood — something which could have longer and broader lasting-effects than any particular bill or policy.