All Style, No Substance?

It's no big mystery that Sarah Palin makes feminists want to poke their own eyes out. That plucky delivery and empty rhetoric, that faux-folksy manipulation and mama-bear shtick. She's essentially using our ideas -- the strength of women, the importance of independence -- but without our integrity. We hate that she's performing empowerment rather than actually delivering it. We hate the way conservative pundits lust after and objectify her. We hate that she's everywhere, saying nothing.

But there's another woman who is currently proving even more problematic for the contemporary feminist. She's a graduate of Princeton and Harvard, formerly a highly successful lawyer at the Chicago firm Sidley Austin, the mentor to our current president of the United States of America.

That's right, Michelle Obama.

Unlike Palin, who is aggravating because she's all style and no substance, the first lady is driving many a feminist batty because she's got so much substance but is shrouding it in nonthreatening style. While Palin is an actor dressed up as a politico, Michelle -- a powerhouse in the political and professional arenas -- is dressed up as solely a concerned wife and mother.

I can't tell you how many gatherings I've been at where a feminist friend brings up her disappointment in Michelle Obama's first two years in the White House. Gloria Feldt, author of the upcoming book, No Excuses: 9 Ways Women Can Change How We Think About Power, told me: "She's squandering her enormous power to shape public perceptions of who women are and what we can aspire to be. Power unused is power useless. I would love to see Michelle quit with the recipes already and use her power to embed a new and more aspirational image of woman in our culture."

All of Michelle Obama's big issues are, indeed, safe. Who could argue with the importance of veterans' affairs and children's health? She's even avoiding offending the food lobbies by focusing on the importance of activity, rather than zeroing in on the economically and racially explosive issue of how we eat.

For feminists, the first lady‘s meekness is maddening. We know how brilliant she is. We know how much she must hunger to take the incredibly difficult position she's been put in and use it to change the nation. So why is she using her massive platform to talk about domestic life with The Ladies Home Journal and yuk it up with the ladies of The View?

This question demands another: Have you see the way the media covers this woman? She takes a trip to Spain with the exact same security detail as all other first ladies in recent history and is called out for being ostentatious and neglecting her man (she was out of town on Barack Obama's 49th birthday). The ever-aggravating Kathleen Parker of The Washington Post even wondered why Michelle Obama couldn't be more like George W. Bush, who had the decency to vacation in Crawford, Texas, where no reporter cared to go, and gave up golf as a symbol of his concern for the troops. Indeed, all while padding the pockets of his friends in private defense corporations and starting a preemptive war that has now killed hundreds of thousands of people. Very unassuming.

Michelle Obama is playing mom-in-chief because she's too smart not to. The public isn't ready for a fireball first lady, as evidenced by the way Hillary Clinton was received when she was in the same position, much less an African American one (so much for a post-racial nation). According to The Los Angeles Times, "Her favorable rating has risen 20 percentage points since the 2008 campaign, when she veered into trouble for asserting that for the first time as an adult, she was 'proud of my country.'" It now hovers around 50 percent, even with the hullabaloo over the Spain trip.

Michelle knows that if she's going to help, not hurt, her husband's shaky public-approval ratings, as well as his chance for re-election, she's got to make Americans feel comfortable -- as frustrating as that might be. There is a potential reward for all this mommy time. Michelle Obama is set to head out and start stumping for Democratic candidates in the midterm election. Her schedule will be released after Labor Day, but rumor has it that she is in high demand.

It's a whiff of things to come. My feminist fantasy is that in Barack Obama's second term, Michelle will be freed to cause all sorts of ruckus in Washington. I hope she takes all of the ideas and energy she stored up while playing mom-in-chief and unleashes them on the world -- pushing for action on big, urgent issues like climate change, education, and the prison system.

Though some feminists may call Michelle's quaint act cowardly, I call it savvy. As Sarah Palin has proved in publicity stunt after publicity stunt, we live in a world where politics has been largely reduced to performance and fundraising. The good ones recognize this and figure out a way to play the game until they can actually make a difference. The bad ones -- here's winking at you Palin -- play the game for the thrill without any care for real-world consequences. Back in October of 2008, Salon's Rebecca Traister wrote some very prescient words: "In certain critical ways, Michelle Obama will come to stand in more prominently than anyone could have imagined for the shortcomings of feminism."

She might yet also stand in for a new generation of feminists who are unflinchingly strategic in their politics. Michelle may yet prove that biting our tongues is worth it if it creates the opportunity to speak bold, world-changing words when the time is right.