Opinion

Michelle Obama's no-win role

Given all the symbolism and superficial clucking that surrounds her, the first lady is in a tough spot.

I'm having a hard time forming an opinion about First Lady Michelle Obama, mostly because there are already so many out there, and they're almost uniformly inane.

There's the constant clucking about her wardrobe: the election night "lava lamp" dress, the Great J. Crew Debate, this week's minor eruption (discussed at some length on Slate.com) over the sleek, unfarmer-like black outfit she chose when she broke ground for a White House vegetable garden.

Then there are the unending efforts to impose iconographic significance on every molecule of her being. Exhibit A: New York magazine's recent "Regarding Michelle Obama" package, which featured apercus on her height, her facial expressions, her relationship with her mother and, perhaps most jarringly, "the clear limits to [her] ambition." (I think this might have been a compliment, but I'm not sure.)

There are the mean-girl utterances from various corners of the bitcherati: conservative radio host Tammy Bruce's remark this week that Obama represented "trash in the White House" and writer Caitlin Flanagan's line (in New York magazine, natch) that the first lady "cuts a pretty figure in her big-and-tall gal ready-to-wear."

And then, of course, there are those biceps and triceps, apparently more vital to the first lady's well-being than her lymphatic system. News reports abound about Obama's workout secrets, the questionable "realness" of her arms (it seems there's a small but vocal group of Photoshop conspiracy theorists out there) and whether or not she's over-exhibiting them.

Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote that while sharing a taxi with fellow columnist David Brooks en route to the British Embassy, Brooks referred to the first lady's sculpted arms as "Thunder and Lightning" and suggested that it was time to cover up since "she's made her point."

I love it when columnists "cross over" like sitcom characters that pop up on unrelated shows (think "Seinfeld's" Kramer suddenly appearing on "Mad About You" -- awesome!). But isn't it disloyal to tell tales out of school? I drove Gregory Rodriguez to a bus stop in Koreatown recently, and you wouldn't believe the smack he was talking. Not that I'm going to spill the beans here.

Anyway, despite Michelle Obama's popularity -- a New York Times/CBS poll last month showed that her favorability rating was higher than those of any recent first ladies -- there are clearly many levels on which she simply cannot and will not win. As beloved as she is, she also will inevitably be poked, prodded, scolded and even hated in equal and possibly greater measure over the years. Her husband may be the one saddled with the toughest job on Earth, but she has assumed a mantle that comes with even more cumbersome baggage, because its size, weight and shape are so immune to agency and reason.

As first lady, Obama may not be charged with solving the economic crisis, but she is expected to embody -- in highly idealized proportions, no less -- the current American notion of what it is to be a wife. Everywife and The Wife.

And because there are as many ways of being an American wife as there are U.S. women who've signed a marriage certificate (63 million at last census count), there are at least 63 million ways to not meet expectations.

And therein lies the cruel twist of modern-day first ladyhood, the nation's premier no-win situation. We have come a long way from wifedom as the archetype of female disquiet (or as Betty Friedan put it, "the problem that has no name"). But the problems of being the wife of the president still seem to defy adequate labels, mostly because they defy description, serious inquiry or even rationality.

Presidents mess up on the facts of policy, promises, agendas, results. First ladies' stars rise and fall on such intangible, fungible trivialities as hairstyle, menu picking and muscle tone. And while some of that trivia -- the kind that involves picking out china, posing for portraits and giving "day-in-the-life" interviews from some starchy, sun-drenched parlor -- is integral to the legacy of the White House, it also recalls the various public beatings many first ladies have endured.

From Betty Ford's outspoken feminism to Nancy Reagan's astrological enthusiasms to Barbara Bush's inveterate grandmotherliness to nearly everything Hillary Clinton did or said (or did not do or say) during her tenure in the East Wing, the performance of contemporary first ladies is so savagely scrutinized that it's sometimes hard to imagine why anyone would want the job. (Did I say job? Taxpayers pony up for first lady staffs and budgets, but no paychecks.)

If there's any task more impossible than being the national symbol of the state of the American wife, it's analyzing what that means. Which could explain why, after her first 50 days, Michelle Obama's notices add up to chatter, chatter everywhere and not an idea to conjure with.

So I'm taking the 5th. I like the first lady just fine, but I've got no opinion about her just yet. And that goes for the whole woman, not just her arms.

mdaum@latimescolumnists.com
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