Michelle Obama might have been a ‘classy’ First Lady, but she has rarely done or said anything remarkable or even entertaining. That the media has deified her into the ultimate role model for women is depressing.
The cult of Michelle continues to grow stronger since her departure from the White House. She has just been voted the most admired woman in a worldwide opinion poll, a ranking she already holds in similar US-only surveys.
Her second autobiography, Becoming, released last November, sold over 10 million in the first six months, and stands to become the biggest-selling memoir in history, at least until her husband’s is published, likely next year.
Tickets for the additional book tour dates she has scheduled – in which she recites incidents from her book after prompts from a moderator – are on sale for $2,500 apiece for a meet-and-greet during the Newark stop and up to $4,200 for a suite. The cheapest seats are offered at over $100.
I do not begrudge her making the money – there is genuine public demand – but what makes Michelle Obama special?
Is it her life story? A middle-class A-grade student goes to a good school, a prestigious university and a top place of employment, before meeting a man and putting her career on the back-burner to focus on being a wife and mother.
Is it her personal achievements? Obama has not practiced law in a quarter of a century, and most of her jobs have been admin positions or post-office board sinecures. While in the White House she was best-known for her organic vegetable garden, and promoting politically orthodox and safe causes like eradicating child poverty, bettering education and LGBT+ rights.
Is it her rare insight? Despite being in the public eye for well over a decade, her only truly sticky quote has been “when they go low, we go high,” which is as often used ironically as it is in earnest. Her pronouncements have consisted almost exclusively of vaguely defiant or vaguely empowering or vaguely celebratory platitudes. “When girls are educated, their countries become stronger and more prosperous” or “We need to do a better job of putting ourselves higher on our own ‘to do’ list.” Even middle-schoolers would probably cock an eyebrow at this stuff if they saw it in their Facebook feed.
Is it her candidness? Obama doles a perfectly measured dose of vulnerability or openness, such as her revelations about miscarriage or discussions about how much she loves dogs, without ever threatening the edifice of her public persona, marriage or morals. She is easily more sanitized than any of the candidates in the 2020 Democratic race.
In summary, what we have here is a vanity tour from a woman who has led a comfortable and happy existence and an unremarkable professional life, giving bland ‘inspirational’ advice off a big-room stage in a scripted set-up without revealing too much of herself.
So, what’s the secret ingredient? That she was married to a man who was president for eight years? That she is the first black American woman who got to redecorate the White House?
And that is enough to lift her over 3.8 billion women on the planet.
To me, that is an indictment of US-style feelgood identity politics, where it is enough to be someone rather than do something to be considered an idol. Even if that someone is primarily famous for that most traditionalist of things – being the wife of a powerful man, a commitment that curtailed her potential.
Secondly, it illustrates the transformation of even the most serious media into partisan hype machines, with the New York Times and Washington Post squealing in the presence of Michelle like little girls at a Harry Styles autograph session. Have some self-respect.
Thirdly, it betrays the unexamined worship of the Obama legacy among supporters. It is understandable that the likely 90-percent-plus Democratic-voting audience of Michelle’s Q & A is still reeling from the contrast between her and the current occupants of the White House. But will the time ever come to question another person who was lauded more for who he represented than what he achieved – on, say, his economic complacency paired with social divisiveness at home, or his ineffectiveness abroad? Or at least admit that he helped usher in Trump in 2016, and may do so again in 2020 if a decrepit Joe Biden manages to nab the Democratic nomination riding on black voters’ goodwill from the Obama connection.
Just the whole vibe of the sickly, sycophantic and corporate Obama industry – Netflix deals and all – seems not just vapid and grating, but weirdly passé already in a world where their life truisms and political philosophies have already been proven to be inadequate. Bill and Hillary Clinton – she the most admired woman in the US for an amazing 22 years – also seemed like the perfect power couple once. Now, we view both as more rounded, flawed characters. The same reckoning can’t come soon enough for the most recent Democratic Party White House family.
In the meantime, school girls and broadsheet editors looking for positive role models can look up to women who have actually earned their fame. From Simone to Malala to Scarlett to Adele, there are plenty to pick from.