Being a political spouse is often a complicated role. It involves state dinners, selecting the right outfits and supporting various public projects and causes. Under constant media attention, political families must appear ‘perfect’. The wrong outfit could bring a negative media cycle or public ridicule and critics of President Obama often focused their attacks on the First Lady. Public discourse on Michelle Obama, in many places, was positive. She had worked hard from humble beginnings, was well educated and had a good public persona of someone witty, intelligent and charismatic. But the First Lady also received a stream of negative attention – focused on her race and her gender. She was often compared to a ‘monkey’ as a racial slur and her body was often mocked by those who dubbed her ‘too manly’.
A Short Summary
Thus, it is fitting that Michelle Obama focuses her memoir on her life as a political spouse – the media attention and the help she provided for her husband campaigns alongside a reflection on raising her young daughters. ‘Becoming’ by Michelle Obama is an intimate portrayal of her life thus far – as a daughter, a dedicated student, a studious Princeton undergraduate, Harvard Law student, a dedicated lawyer and her roles as a wife and mother. Obama writes candidly throughout. For example, she doesn’t consider her role as First Lady to be an aspiration, but rather the service of a citizen of the United States who was married to the President.
Obama separates the book into three sections – ‘Becoming Me’ which looks at her upbringing on the South Side of Chicago with her parents, Fraser and Marian Robinson in a small apartment and then her education at Princeton University and Harvard. Obama went on to become a lawyer at Sidley Austin, where she met her now – husband Barack Obama. Then starts the second section. ‘Becoming Us’ follows their marriage, Barack’s political career, her healthy eating campaigns, and the upbringing of her two daughters.
A Critical View of Becoming
Obama challenges the traditional roles and functions expected of a political spouse. Although initially reluctant to share the spotlight, Obama supported her husbands’ campaign for President. She was outspoken on the campaign trail as she discussed her husband, her own upbringing and her husband’s vision for the United States. Though this did not come easily.
Barack’s book ‘Dreams from My Father’, focused on how race influenced his life and this is evidently the same case for Michelle too. It was a balancing act. Obama could not be seen as too intelligent. She was not to appear intimidating by being too articulate, but she did have to be classy and elegant.
The campaign trail is not easy and Obama acknowledges this. The book’s main strength lies in her candid tone and how open she is about her life – his campaign was her first real exposure to public life. For even the most confident people, this level of scrutiny and attention was intimidating – no matter how hard Obama worked, she would face critics.
Obama sets out why she could not pursue a political career. In her own words, her husband, unlike her, was not easily rattled. Obama is well aware of her portrayal as an emasculating wife, considered over–bearing by some whilst her own thoughts and feelings were warped for media soundbites. Black women must often contend with this angry black woman stereotype and Obama heard the phrase constantly and eventually, the age–old narrative stuck.
Obama’s reflections on race and sex are interesting, and especially her thoughts on her critics’ priorities – whether she was ‘angry’, whether she was ‘black’ or whether it was the fact she was a ‘woman’.
Having read both Obamas’ autobiographies, it is clear that racism and prejudice directed towards those from black and ethnic minority backgrounds continues to # false stereotypes. As a result, every move the Obamas’ make, what they wear, what they say and how they say it is under increased scrutiny. Black women such as the former First Lady are often depicted with this angry black woman stereotype. Obama for example, was mocked with caricatures as an ape.
It would be a privileged assumption to make if we believe race is still not an issue. This is not only the case in the United States – if we look to the treatment of black and Asian and minority ethnic MPs such as Dianne Abbott – who receive a disproportionate amount of criticism and racism and sexism, the treatment of those from ‘BAME’ backgrounds in politics is often different to those who are from different backgrounds. It is not to say that those who are not part of the BAME community never experience prejudice, but it is the fact that those from a BAME background must contend with age – old stereotypes, systematic inequalities and increased scrutiny and criticism.
Michelle Obama’s ‘Becoming’ is a must – read for anyone interested in discovering a more intimate account of the Obama administration or family life and for those who want to discover how race and sex intersect to impact the life of BAME public figures. Michelle Obama lends a candid tone to ‘Becoming’ which details her rise to prominence – she is not merely an extension of her husband, but rather her own person.
Aaminah Saleem is an International Relations and Politics undergraduate student at the University of Birmingham and Economic Spokesperson of Centre Think Tank. She tweets @AaminahSaleem2