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19 February 2009

Michelle and the media

As the press swoons over Michelle Obama, it demonstrates our almost comical confusion about both rac

By Zoe Williams

Magazines have a tendency to overstate. When Anna Wintour wrote her editor’s letter for the latest edition of American Vogue, with Michelle Obama as its cover star, this is what she said: “Change was the clarion call of Barack Obama’s election campaign, though I don’t think any of us at

Vogue initially realised that would include the difference that was going to be made by First Lady Michelle Obama’s wardrobe. It’s inspiring to see our first lady so serene and secure in her personal style.”

How about that? We all knew change was coming: that we were going to have a president who would shut down Guantanamo Bay, whose election would mark the end of racial injustice that is as old as the nation itself, who could conceivably take environmental concerns seriously just in time to save the world . . . But who knew, folks, that his wife would be able to choose clothes and then wear them? Who knew?

I have a theory about Michelle Obama’s relationship with the American style media, and thence the American media in general. So much is riding on her as the load-bearing wall for the weight of Barack’s racial symbolism – she is regarded so seriously as the keeper of the message – that the style media are trying to reclaim territory they know they’ve already lost. She’s so stylish, she ought to be theirs.

The response of the English press has been no less intense. That she’s not our first lady has seemingly had no impact on her centrality to our news agenda, where she governs style pages and comment sections. She is everywhere. This past week, the story of her appearance in American Vogue featured in every serious and mid-market newspaper, the Telegraph leading the pack with a large front-page photograph and a half-page article on page three.

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Our rhetoric is very different, however. All the conversations Americans have about race, we have about class. Here is an illustration. In the run-up to the presidential election, Vanessa Grigoriadis wrote in New York magazine: “As much as any political campaign is an extended meditation on authenticity, the question of just how black the Obamas are has become particularly loaded.”

In Britain, rather than carat-testing anybody’s race, we filter it into language with which we are comfortable. Thus, Hannah Betts, in the Times, remarked: “Early attempts to out her as an ‘angry black woman’ merely succeeded in impressing upon many that despite being the descendant of slaves on both sides, Michelle is admirably anger-free. Meanwhile, the concerted efforts of this pump operator’s daughter from Chicago’s working-class South Side to pull herself up by her bootstraps make Cherie Booth’s talk of being from the school of hard knocks look like so much whingeing.”

The race element segues immediately into a question of class: the British baulk at thinking of black public figures in terms of the historical injustice they symbolise, and the issue of gender is no less vexed.

You rarely see feminism more confused than it is around a woman who’s an intellectual but also hot. There is broad agreement that you can talk about Michelle Obama’s “style impact” without undermining the sisterhood. Hell, the Guardian does it. But her fashion sense is often examined in terms of the impact it will have on smaller design houses, on high-street/haute mix’n’matching. Or else it is given a media spin: for instance, is she only the fourth black woman to appear on the cover of Vogue since its inception in 1892? (Yes, by the way, she is.)

For an organ that approaches Mrs O’s appearance less gingerly, refer to Elizabeth Grice in the Telegraph. Last August, she found her “statuesque, fond of big theatrical jewellery and bold colours; she does know, instinctively, how to use her innate power”. And at the inauguration ceremony? Well, Grice exclusively reports, Michelle hasn’t got any shorter: “She proved she is a natural in the spotlight – statuesque, fresh, bold, poised and unfailingly appropriate in her dress sense.” All these words are code for “not very feminine”. Even the idea that she knows “how to use her innate power” sounds less like the power of the vixen, more like she has a hand grenade tucked into her pants.

We do not know what to do with this model. We can’t file Michelle Obama under WAG; she’s no Carla Bruni but she’s not frumpy, either. These style-appreciators seem to be lauding her for her sophisticated tastes, but are in fact saying “she’s a bit like a bloke”. The conservative press deals with its unease (“Is she a woman or a whole person? So hard to say!”) by making her sound like a transvestite. And the liberal press covers its confusion (“Is she a feminist pioneer? Or just a woman?”) by getting all sociological on her ass every time she wears a dress.

Of course, if we’re talking about Michelle Obama, none of this matters at all. What does she care? She has the Rottweilers of the American press to worry about, if she’s minded to worry about this kind of thing, which we have to hope she isn’t. She does expose our concerns, though, showing us in comic denial about the extent of our evolution, our sophistication. She holds up a mirror to the culture; which, it turns out, has a paper bag over its head.

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