I don't envy Michelle Obama. Intelligent, ambitious and capable, she is Barack's equal in every sense yet her most recent individual contribution to the Machiavellian circus that is the American election was her participation in the 'First Lady Cookie Bake Off'. Luckily though her Princeton education seemed to have covered that in class and she emerged victorious against Ann Romney.
The pressure on the First Lady must be immense. Behind every All-American President there needs to be an equally All-American lady. She has to be able to appeal to everyone, in particular the judging eyes of the female electorate. She needs to be the 'girl-next-door' to both the marines serving in Afghanistan and the corner office banker in Wall Street. She needs to spend enough time at home to make a cracking meatloaf but must also have enough on her CV to show there's more to her than the ability to fabulously co-ordinate a twinset and pearls. She needs to be pretty and well presented, but definitely not too pretty. Too pretty implies that her and the president have sex and we all know that the president only communicates affection through a proud kiss on the cheek at a rally.
The reality is that getting the right presidential candidate is only half the story. Every jock needs a cheerleader and it's a campaign co-ordinator's dream if the other half has a nice smile and is photogenic. If she's a style icon like Jackie Kennedy, then that's even better, a powerhouse full time worker like Hillary Clinton is slightly more difficult to sell. The First Lady Cookie Bake off did in fact start when Hillary commented that when her husband was elected Governor of Arkansas she went after a career rather than 'stay at home and bake cookies'. This didn't go down enormously well with the Middle American Moms who did stay at home so immediately a contest was called and gender identities were reinforced.
The American elections are the best opportunity to see how little gender stereotypes have changed in the US. Presidential wives are reduced to their lowest common denominators, notches on the bed post of femininity. They need to be the ideal woman but in a way that is encouraging to Middle America and not intimidating. The easiest way to make a woman unintimidating is to make her seem dependent on someone else. Besides maybe if your wife dresses in enough Ralph Lauren and spends enough time with her 2.5 children the electorate won't notice your husband's disastrous foreign policy, his botched TV debate or his ill thought out healthcare plan.
Michelle Obama is a practising attorney but when was the last time the media took a picture that wasn't her either clinging to Barack's arm or smiling benevolently at under-privileged children? At a First Lady's best, during their husband's presidency, they are charitable icons with the power and influence to raise awareness about key issues. But at their worst, during campaigning, they are the fictional constructs of what the campaign thinks an American woman should be. The media thought that a black President was radical, but for real radicalism we should turn to the role of the First Lady. True equality will be reached when the First Lady becomes the First Man, when the First Man is married to a man or when the first female President doesn't feel the need to be married at all.
And it starts with the abolition of that ridiculous cookie contest!
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