Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Michelle Obama is no Marie Antoinette

 I am a little late to this story, but it deserves some sort of comment, because it speaks loudly about the value of women's labour in this society.  It seems that Michelle and Sasha Obama, as well as a few of her closest friends have gone to Spain.  The New York Daily News has of course had a shit fit over this.
Sacrifice is something that many Americans are becoming all too familiar with during this economic downturn. It was a key theme in President Obama's inaugural address to the nation, and he's referenced it numerous times when lecturing the country on how to get back on its feet.

But while most of the country is pinching pennies and downsizing  summer sojourns - or forgoing them altogether - the Obamas don't seem to be heeding their own advice. While many of us are struggling, the First Lady is spending the next few days in a five-star hotel on the chic Costa del Sol in southern Spain with 40 of her "closest friends." According to CNN, the group is expected to occupy 60 to 70 rooms, more than a third of the lodgings at the 160-room resort. Not exactly what one would call cutting back in troubled times.

Instead, Michelle Obama seems more like a modern-day Marie Antoinette - the French queen who spent extravagantly on clothes and jewels without a thought for her subjects' plight - than an average mother of two. While she's spent her time in the White House telling parents they should relieve their chubby kids' dependency on sugar and stressing the importance of an organic veggie garden, hopping a jet to Europe to meet with Spanish royalty isn't the visual the White House probably wants to project. Perhaps they've forgotten the damning image of John Kerry, on the eve of the 2004 election, windsurfing off the coast of Nantucket?
Did you get the part where she would be meeting Spanish royalty?  That to me sounds like a working vacation -- something that people do all of the time.  What strikes me about this story, is that the Daily News has no problem looking at the expenditures and ignoring all of the work that the FLOTUS has done since her husband was inaugurated.   Unlike Dr. Jill Biden, there is no possible way for her to work a conventional job, and it is assumed by the public that the FLOTUS should simply labour for four years for free for the damn perks.  This has always been the expectation of the FLOTUS and this is specifically based in sexism and gender determinism.

If the American people were willing to pay the FLOTUS a salary, perhaps they would have a leg to stand on because it would acknowledge the work that she does, but until that time, they have absolutely no say in how she takes her "perks."  It seems taking is not a problem but paying is.  Wrapped in this issue is the way that the traditional labour of women is continually discounted.  It is considered unimportant because it does not produce a product that can be sold on the open market, but would said market even be possible without the work of women in the private sphere?  It may not be glamorous, but the labour of women is the necessary labour of life.

While the FLOTUS's campaign regarding healthy eating ignores the class aspect, it is absolutely essential that Americans re-learn to consume real food.  I doubt that my great grandmother would recognize as food many of the things most consume today.  It is absolutely necessary for someone to set a standard and take on the food industry.  Americans have become addicted to sugar, salt and fatty foods. Yet, we know that this is the sort of safe campaign that the American public wants the FLOTUS to take on.  We only have to look at the example of Hilary Clinton to witness a backlash on political first ladies. So basically, Americans like it when their FLOTUS keeps her work to the domestic sphere and there can be doubt that this meshes completely with the historic expectations of women.  As long as the FLOTUS talks about things like food, children, etc., not paying for that labour can be justified, because it once again falls into the category of women's gift labour -- the kind of labour all women are expected to perform for free based in love.

I have no doubt the FLOTUS loves her country and her family -- but does this mean that society has a right to demand that she continue to perform for free?  The only way that this can be assumed as a right, is if the FLOTUS actually is public property rather than an individual in her own right.   It is certainly easy to look at this situation and see only the perks, in fact -- that is exactly what patriarchy would like us to see; however, if we take such a narrow vision of what is occurring, we ignore that such ideas have historically been used to keep women out of the public sphere, thus relegating them to slaves of their husbands, rather than equal partners. Perhaps, the American people should eat a little cake, until they learn to pay the baker.

H/T Jack and Jill Politics