Judging by Michelle Obama’s speech, feminism is dead to the Democratic party. A few nods to feminism, with catch-phrase references to glass ceilings and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act cannot atone for valorizing mid-twentieth-century gender roles.
A riveting speaker, Mrs. Obama (she apparently prefers the retrograde ‘Mrs.’) surely captured the audience’s hearts with her proud homage to military families and sentimental personal anecdotes. Are passionately swelling refrains enough to distract us from the overwhelming normative gendering?
Without using the f-word, or referring to either issue by name, Michelle alluded to women’s suffrage and marriage equality, perhaps placating some feminists listening for affirmation of more progressive issues than the speech’s traditional family values.
From the DNC video introducing the First Lady to her final chords, the appearance carefully schools the audience in traditional gender roles. Her father serves as the quintessential man, defined by his role as breadwinner: “for my dad, that’s what it meant to be a man. Like so many of us, that was the measure of his success in life – being able to earn a decent living that allowed him to support his family.”
The First Lady leads by example, epitomizing womanhood: “my most important title is still ‘mom-in-chief.’ My daughters are still the heart of my heart and the center of my world.” The introduction video sends the same message, featuring her husband gushing about what a wonderful mother Michelle is, the conductor of their family orchestra, while Barack merely “plays second fiddle”.
Michelle rejoins by praising her husband, as the essential male figure in her daughter’s lives: “our girls wouldn’t be who they are without a man in their life who loved them deeply”.
The message rings clear: men provide for their families, while women are their families. This essentialist nuclear family model leaves little room for the reality of contemporary U.S. families, increasingly headed by single mothers, two fathers, or two mothers. Same-sex parents do not fit Michelle’s depiction of young love, marriage, and reproduction; perhaps it is fair – that’s not her story.
Yet Barack’s story involves a single-parent, Ann Dunham, whom Michelle’s narrative of “my dad and Barack’s grandmother” neatly cuts out, save a single mention. Calling Barack’s mother “a single mother who struggled to pay the bills”, characterizes Dunham by her inability to provide for her family, rather than her parental relationship, or non-reproductive accomplishments.
Michelle Obama’s speech promotes a heterosexual nuclear family founded on traditional marriage and even more traditional gender roles. Why is a democratic First Lady in 2012 propounding such conservative views?
Michelle can’t be too critical without being labeled an “angry black woman”, and her address is no doubt the product of a speechwriter. Surely though, the speech, so prominently featured on the convention’s opening day, must be on message.
If the Democratic Party line advocates one breadwinning man and one mother consumed by her role as “mom”, then is there room for non-traditional families? Is there room for feminism?