PLANK SEPTEMBER 5, 2012
It was impossible to watch Michelle Obama’s convention speech tonight and not think of Ann Romney’s last week in Tampa. There were, most obviously, the sartorial and physical contrasts between the two women: as if in rebuke to Romney’s long-sleeved red dress from that most traditional of first-lady designers, Oscar de la Renta, Obama strode onstage in a shimmery pink-and-grey, muscle-baring number designed by Tracy Reese, who just so happens to be an African-American woman from Detroit. We’ve got the image of her one errant curl and griege nail polish versus Ann Romney’s blinged-out gold jewelry and red lipstick. Michelle’s sure, battle-tested confidence at the podium against Ann’s more-tentative delivery. There was, too, the impoverished-young-love one-upsmanship: Does Barack’s rusted car beat the Romneys’ tuna-and-pasta dinners? There was, most of all, the way Obama used her own biodata in contrast to the Romneys to illustrate the idea that this is the striving middle class versus the wealthy, to rousing effect.
But then there was the mom thing. To no one’s surprise, you’d have been tanked if you chose the word “mom” as a drinking-game trigger for either speech. Except that Ann Romney, career stay-at-home mom whose hard work in that role was famously impugned by Hillary Rosen, opened her speech with an homage to working mothers. “You know what it’s like to work a little harder during the day to earn the respect you deserve at work and then come home to help with that book report which just has to be done,” she sympathized (shortly by indiscriminately hollering at ALL the ladies in the house with “I love you women!!”). But the closest Michelle Obama, long the family’s breadwinner, came to mentioning her law career was walking out to a Stevie Wonder song that references contracts. She gave a shout-out to all the exhausted moms, not the exhausted working moms. To her credit, she did—unlike Ann Romney—acknowledge that dads, even presidential ones, participate awfully actively in raising kids these days. (The image of Barack Obama “strategizing about middle school friendships” is a fun one. Does he consult with his foreign policy advisors?) Most strikingly, the big emotional payoff moment of the night came when Obama declared that “at the end of the day, my most important title is still mom-in-chief.”
It’s a true and universally resonant sentiment. After all, Mrs. Obama is far more in the thick of raising kids than is Mrs. Romney. But I can’t help thinking of the martial roots of that “-in-chief” designation: the “mommy wars” that have been battled in the press over the last decades take as their baseline assumption that working moms and stay-at-home moms see their choices as in opposition. Generals Ann and Michelle want to broker a peace—one that’s awfully helpful politically; both need all the women—but it’s a little depressing that both see fit to do so by whitewashing out their own experiences for the sake of bland universality. After all, way back in 1996, even after taking a beating in the press for being a little too careerist, Hillary Clinton didn’t shy away from making a direct plea on behalf of working parents, and talking about how that experience informed her husband’s platform.
Obama’s “momification” is hardly new; Rebecca Traister wrote smartly on the subject in 2008 , back when it was an important strategic move meant to contrast the “angry” image of Michelle that had taken hold during that cycle. This time around, Obama’s strength (the literal kind) was celebrated with a pre-speech video homage to her pushup-prowess. It was one of the most happy-making things I’ve watched recently. But, as Jodi Kantor pointed out today in the Times, her hugs have also become a signature part of the first lady’s physical presence. That combination of warmth and toughness telegraphs what she can't quite spell out explicitly in her speeches, I suppose, about what her version of mothering (and working) consists of. Goodbye, muscular feminism. Hello, muscular mom-ism.