Anne Taylor
Anne Taylor

Media gives Michelle Obama a dressing down

Will the world ever be ready for a female American president? Especially, God forbid, one with bad fashion sense?

Look, I love Obama as much as the next South African. It was a thrilling election night: we were collectively moved and touched when Barak Obama took to the stage to acknowledge victory. It was exciting, emotional and all the things the election of a man with such obvious potential for greatness should be.

But I have to confess to being a little disappointed when things did not work out for Hillary Clinton, simply because I was hoping for a sister in the White House. Although there’s no denying the hope, energy and potential of an Obama presidency. As Judy Sikuza writes elsewhere on this site: “Being South African, I can almost equate this experience to how people must have felt in 1994 when former president Nelson Mandela was elected.”

As the world watched, America’s victorious president-elect walked onto the stage, briefly accompanied by his wife, Michelle, and his two daughters. The next day, newspapers – including those in South Africa – carried the photograph of Barak embracing his wife, highlighting that intimate moment when he kisses her on the nose. As Roy Greenslade describes, they are images of “mutual joy at a moment of triumph. Mostly though, they illustrate the love between the US president elect and his wife of 16 years.”

And then the media swiftly moved on to more important matters: such as what the world thought of Michelle’s dress. South African newspapers couldn’t resist the lure of trash. In the Eastern Cape, we had the Herald running AFP’s take on the New York Times story, ‘That Dress? Everyone has an opinion’, on its front page. Beginning with the ridiculous statement that “some of the most heated conversations on the morning after election night centered on Michelle Obama’s dress”, writer Ruth la Ferla runs through the positive and the negative, ending with the promise that we’ve at least got “four lively years of fashion-watching at the White House” to look forward to.

The Times, which is delivered free to my home (almost) every week day, carried a front-page promo box on Friday, November 7: “Mrs Obama: meet America’s classy first lady”. The story, originally published by the Times of London, is not to be found on our Times’s website, which is a pity as the offensiveness is highlighted by the edit.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating if I say I can’t recall reading a more sexist, demeaning collection of words about powerful women such as Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton. Journalist Sarah Vine describes Michelle as attractive in a “normal” kind of way. What the hell does that mean? Oh, she’s neither “too sexy” nor too sassy. She is, we’re told, the “personification of sanity”. (How unusual for a woman!)

Clinton, together with Eleanor Roosevelt, are, of course, described as “ball breakers”. “They have their own careers, their own lives and their own minds”. OMG! Their own minds? Really?! You mean, they’re women who can think for themselves?

But perhaps the most perplexing aspect of the article is its closing lines: “It is not often one can go to sleep safe in the knowledge that there is an educated, intelligent, sensible female voice being heard in the corridors of power.” Ah! Thank God. I can sleep now. No more long nights, worrying about the subversive power of First Ladies everywhere, who must be whispering uneducated and ridiculous “womanly” ideas into the ears of the world’s most powerful men.

Perhaps I’m just angry with Sarah Palin, whose stupidity gave Americans the excuse never to even consider electing a female president. But, really, I’m disappointed that, in 2008, we’re still dedicating column centimetres to what women wear and other drivel. I suspect that until we move away from what we look like to what women are doing, we will never see a woman in the White House. Not even one who can think for herself.

  • Odette

    @ Anne Taylor

    Very nice post – you took the words right out of my mouth.

  • Robyn

    I know that there is sometimes comment in the media on what our female politicians wear, but somehow I get the sense that we are perhaps a little further down the road than the USA towards electing a female politician, based on pretty much the same criteria we use to rate men.

  • willem

    Sarah Palin’s stupidity would never have become an issue had she not had the misfortune to run against a black man. This is what Camille Paglia has to say about Palin and people like you: “As a career classroom teacher, I can see how smart she is — and quite frankly, I think the people who don’t see it are the stupid ones, wrapped in the fuzzy mummy-gauze of their own worn-out partisan dogma.”

  • pete ess

    Say this out loud, and mean it: I will never again read, write or discuss the attire of any woman in public office again.
    Only by starving this cheap rubbish of oxygen will we get past it.
    I have said the above. This is my last writing on the subject, ever.

  • Anne Taylor

    @willem Women’s discussion of Palin has brought up a lot of interesting issues — see Slate’s XX Factor blog as an excellent example (at

    But, with all due respect to you and camille, let me let Palin speak for herself. Here she is on the “Africa issue” (as quoted by the NYTimes’s Maureen o’Dowd):
    “My concern has been the atrocities there in Darfur and the relevance to me with that issue as we spoke about Africa and some of the countries there that were kind of the people succumbing to the dictators and the corruption of some collapsed governments on the continent, the relevance was Alaska’s investment in Darfur with some of our permanent fund dollars.”
    And, she concluded, “never, ever did I talk about, well, gee, is it a country or a continent, I just don’t know about this issue.”

    You be the judge.

  • Van Wyk

    And now Helen Zille’s clothes are being discussed in the media! I agree with you on the media coverage of what first ladies wear – pathetic! – but on being so disappointed about not having a woman president: many modern states, east and west, have had female heads of state (Africa is lagging seriously behind), but a black (OK, half black) head of state – that’s a first. And Clinton is, morally speaking (I’m not referring to any of her “non-womanly” characteristics, but te her lies and lack of priniciple as it emerged during the campaign, not to mention her initial support for the Iraq war and the Patriot Act), not a patch on Obama. Her sex had nothing to do with her loosing to Obama (race normally counts much more in the USA). She was simply not good enough.