Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Receptionist and The First Lady

Will Michelle Obama Spark the Next 'Mommy Wars' Skirmish?, by PunditMom, BlogHer.

The momification of Michelle Obama, by Rebecca Traister, Salon.

The Associated Press wondered what kind of first lady Michelle will be, and concludes, "the kind of first lady this country has not seen in decades." You mean, the kind with a high-powered job? No, "the mother of young children." True enough, and the AP story did include the fact that Michelle is known to be her husband's closest advisor. But it made sure to emphasize the campaign's assertions that "she is not interested in shaping policy or reserving a seat for herself at her husband's decision-making table. She prefers, at least for now, to focus on easing the transition for Malia, 10, and Sasha, 7 -- getting them in new schools, settled and comfortable with a new way of life." Indeed, Michelle herself has been flogging the term "mom-in-chief" as the cheerily unthreatening title she'll assume when she gets to the White House . . .

. . . Prior to Hillary Clinton, we'd never had a first lady who had a post-graduate degree. Michelle Obama went to college at Princeton and law school at Harvard. She was a practicing lawyer at the Chicago firm Sidley Austin when she was assigned to mentor the summer associate who would become her husband. She was his mentor . . .

In one of the smartest pieces that has been written about the next first lady, Geraldine Brooks' profile of her in the October issue of More magazine, Brooks writes that while you can see Michelle's life as the quintessential modern woman's success story, the trajectory can also be read as a "depressingly retrograde narrative of stifling gender roles and frustrating trade-offs." In serious ways, Brooks writes, "it is her husband's career, his choices -- choices she has not always applauded -- that have shaped her life in the last decade."

I am so tired. I'm tired of women in my media regressing to roles befitting Leave it to Beaver or The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet or even I Dream of Jeannie. These women have powers far beyond those of their male partners. Yet these women choose to play down their powers as much as they can so as not to overshadow their men.

I didn't look hard enough to find similar articles about Pam on The Office, so I'll summarize the situation. (You can watch the latest episode, "Frame Toby", on the NBC website, until it is taken away.) Pam leaves her receptionist job in Scranton, PA, (yes, that Scranton) to attend art school in New York City for three months, where she can exercise her notable talent. At the end of three months, Pam fails a class and must decide whether to stay in New York to retake it. Instead of continuing to follow her dream, she returns to Scranton, to her receptionist job at a failing company, so that she can be with her fiancé Jim, who is stuck in a dead-end career at the same company. Jim then buys his parents' crumbling house--thereby acquiring major debt in a depreciating investment vehicle during a recession [look at my fancy book-learning!]--and "surprises" Pam with it. And Pam . . . loves it? Her exact words are, "You bought me a house!"

Yeah, no. I understand that the writers of The Office had to lock down Jim and Pam in Scranton so that the series could continue. However, the series has now passed the point of plausibility in many regards, including the Jim and Pam story. The writers have given no explanation for why Jim couldn't move to New York and accelerate his career at the corporate office; the corporate executives already want him to work there. That way Jim could be with Pam, and support Pam's dreams to work as a skilled artist in New York. But no, they are both back in Scranton. Why? So that they can be Ozzie and Harriet.

It leads me back to the First Lady and President-elect, and to what I was talking about in August, when the John Edwards scandal was a-buzzing. At the moment, I am working so hard in so many ways to make my career and my life successful. Yet the most prominently featured woman in the United States media has traded in her higher education to become Donna Reed. I hadn't thought about this before, but there is going to be someone in the White House who looks like me. That should be cause for celebration. I'm sure people think I'm jazzed about First Lady Michelle Obama. But I'm not. Because I see exactly what's going on. Michelle Obama is being painted as someone's wife/mom/decorator. Or, as in the case of The Stephanie Miller Show yesterday morning, she is categorized as a black woman with a large behind. And in many ways, Michelle Obama isn't challenging that characterization.

"The primary focus for the first year will be making sure that the kids make it through the transition," [Michelle Obama] said, sitting alongside her husband [on 60 Minutes]. "But there are many issues that I care deeply about." She cited two that she focused on during the campaign: Military families, and the work-family balance.

One part of these situations that irks me greatly is the complicity of the men involved. Rebecca Traister calls it "crucial (and heartening)". However, silence is acceptance, no matter how much Barack Obama acknowledges "that Michelle's challenges in these coming years may not be much fun for her." Don't sit there watching your wife's career and individual identity slip away from her; do something about it.

. . . In "The Audacity of Hope," he describes the gradual tipping of the professional scales in his relationship with Michelle, as she allows him to become a distraction, and then a date, and then a husband and a father, at the same time that he is becoming a politician. At first, he writes, they were both "working hard," he as a civil rights lawyer and a professor, she for the city and at Public Allies. Then they had Malia, and "the strains in our relationship began to show."

When he launched his congressional run, Barack writes, "Michelle put up no pretense of being happy with the decision. My failure to clean up the kitchen suddenly became less endearing. Leaning down to kiss Michelle good-bye in the morning, all I would get was a peck on the cheek. By the time Sasha was born ... my wife's anger toward me seemed barely contained."

Barack continues, "No matter how liberated I liked to see myself as -- no matter how much I told myself that Michelle and I were equal partners, and that her dreams and ambitions were as important as my own -- the fact was that when children showed up, it was Michelle and not I who was expected to make the necessary adjustments. Sure, I helped, but it was always on my terms, on my schedule. Meanwhile, she was the one who had to put her career on hold." Barack considers his dawning realization that in his wife, as in so many working women, there was a battle raging. "In her own mind, two visions of herself were at war with each other," he writes. "The desire to be the woman her mother had been, solid, dependable, making a home and always there for her kids, and the desire to excel in her profession, to make her mark on the world and realize all those plans she'd had on the very first day that we met."

What a touching story. He tried to help. It's so sad that Barack Obama hands were tied by his own naked ambition. I must dab the tears from my eyes.



Peter said...

I'm not up to date on The Office, but isn't it a little unfair to critize a plot point of a fairly serialized tv show that may not be done with the plot? Also, didn't Jim turn the garage into an art studio? I'm going off of wiki here, and have little knowledge of "art," but how imperative is it that Pam be in New York to do the job? Wasn't her showcase a couple of seasons ago in Scranton? And honestly, I get the feeling that if Pam had asked Jim to come to New York, he would have. He almost did in the show already after all.

As for the main point, what are/were Michelle Obama's ambitions/career goals? The articles quoted don't seem to actually explain why things happened the way they did other than that they did.

molecularshyness said...

I felt the SAME way about Pam's reaction. I was frankly shocked that she made herself look so enthused. I can't believe that she actually is. I understand them doing this for the show, but I don't see how things are really going to keep moving forward with them making these particular choices. Sadly, I think Jim and Pam have doomed themselves - as Jim and Pam, anyway.

As for Michelle, it seems like she's trying to downplay anything that might possibly offend the majority of Americans [white traditionalists]. I feel like I've seen her consciously do this in interviews, etc. As though the only way for Barack to win is to sublimate her self. I can understand that opinion, I just don't know if I agree with it.

Bianca Reagan said...

Jim did turn the garage into an art studio. However, I doubt that one could argue that Pam could have a comparable art career in Scranton, PA.

Michelle Obama obviously had some career goals at some point, considering that she went to Harvard Law School. According to Wikipedia:

"In 2002, she began working for the University of Chicago Hospitals, first as executive director for community affairs and, beginning May, 2005, as Vice President for Community and External Affairs. She continued to hold the position during the primary campaign, but cut back to part time in order to spend time with her daughters as well as work for her husband's election; she subsequently took a leave of absence from her job."

The main problem that I have with this current situation is what molecularshyness mentioned:

it seems like she's trying to downplay anything that might possibly offend the majority of Americans [white traditionalists]

She is trying to appear acceptable to maintain the approval of people who are concerned about her blackness and her strength as a educated woman.

Peter said...

To take the issues seperately, what's Michelle Obama's "blackness?" And how has she been downplaying it?