Michelle Obama is in the middle of a 12-city book tour, and as the whole world knows by now, this is no ordinary tour. She’s selling out sports stadiums that seat tens of thousands of people, and the people who fork over between $30 and $3,000 for a ticket get no ordinary bookstore reading or Q&A. There’s swelling music – think Steve Wonder, think the Jackson Five – there’s an interviewer who’s usually something of a celebrity herself (think actress Sarah Jessica Parker or the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie). There’s a slickly produced photo montage. There’s video. There’s even a warmup act, in the form of a varied group of girls and women who, each in her carefully choreographed turn, briefly explain who they are and what they are in the process of … becoming.
For Becoming is, of course, the title of Obama’s memoir, published in November to great fanfare. In the last few weeks it has become the best-selling book of 2018. And the live show is, well, just that – a show, an event, a spectacle.
Welcome to the spectacle-ization of Michelle Obama.
She has always had great clothes and, except for a few initial missteps, a devoted following, a polished public presence and a way with everyone from schoolchildren to the press. So what is it that’s so irksome about the vision of Michelle as Spectacle?
Stare, as I have been doing obsessively, at the cover image of Becoming.Michelle’s gaze – into the camera, at you – is steady and direct. Her teeth are perfect. Her lip gloss is colorless and discreet, but her eyes are distinctly rimmed with liner. Her hair is loose and long and free-flowing, her eyebrows visibly painted on. It’s a carefully constructed and thought-through presentation of self, but the thing that really vaults the picture into the realm of Glam Shot Extraordinaire is the exposed shoulder emerging from the folds of draped fabric.
This is a woman who understands optics very well and who has expressed her opinions on everything from her right to straighten her hair (the subject of black women’s hair often being a vexed one) to her mixing-and-matching of high fashion with J. Crew. She must have had a carefully delineated thought process about that shoulder. In going for the glam, was she foreswearing Hillary Clinton-style pantsuits and Elizabeth Warren Type A glasses, thereby telegraphing her desire to stay away from politics? Was she embracing her celebrity status, her post-White House role as Netflix producer, talk show habitué and mega-earning author?
All these moves are her right, but I have to confess disappointment. And since I’m an ardent Michelle Obama fan, I also have to ask myself: Why on earth do I have this feeling?
The disappointment may be related to the reaction I and many others had while she was First Lady when, rather than grappling with weighty policy issues, she opted for safe, traditional, nonthreatening projects centered on veterans’ families, fitness and the White House garden. All very worthy, but I wanted her, with her law degree and her big brain, to do so much more than that.
And what is it that I want of her now? For her to rescue me – us – as we face a yawning vacuum in political leadership?
That isn’t fair, but it just may be true. I long for the Michelle Obama who stirred our hearts and minds with her famous “When they go low, we go high” line, seemingly unafraid of any situation.
The woman who takes the stage in late November at the Capitol One Arena in Washington, D.C., midway through her tour presents herself as “real,” “authentic,” and not at all hesitant to tackle any serious, self-revealing topic. The adoring audience in what is sometimes known as the Chocolate City is overwhelmingly female and overwhelmingly African-American, every age from high-schooler to grandmother – and in a celebratory mood, dressed to the nines, with furs and elaborate hair and makeup, glasses of Chardonnay in hand, taking selfies galore. The Motown music swells and swells again, reaching crescendo after crescendo. I feel myself being manipulated by the stirring introduction given by poet Elizabeth Alexander, by the heart-warming photos and videos, by the opening-act group of women who introduce themselves and their various states of “becoming.” By the time the Secret Service and the security guards and the various minions have taken their places around the stage, and Obama herself comes out, in full super-glam mode (towering spike heels, camera-ready clothes, plentiful jewelry), the lump in my throat would have to be surgically removed.
Obama, as personable as ever, speaks eloquently about many of the same topics she broaches in her book: her working-class South Side of Chicago background (which writer Isabel Wilkerson notes in her favorable New York Times review of the book, is one of its “great gifts”), her thoughts on the absolute necessity of perfection and nothing less in her role as FLOTUS. She is poised, she is funny, she is thoughtful and thought-provoking. And since this night comes not long after the hard-fought midterm elections, it is very hard not to think: Hold the spectacle, bring on the leadership.
But that, very clearly, does not seem to be what Michelle Obama has in mind. We may want to follow, but if she's going to lead, it's probably not going to be in a way that has much of anything to do with ballots, campaigns or elections.