About the first thing the press discussed after Barak Obama’s elections was Michelle Obama. What was she wearing? Why would she wear that? Didn’t her arms look nice? Quite quickly, the media consensus seemed to be that Michelle Obama had nice arms. The arms race to report this feature was most evident in the UK. An awful lot of drivel, presented as news, followed in print on the niceness of Michelle Obama’s arms. Especially her upper arms. Sometimes they added ‘news’ about her hairstyle or her dress. A few of them said she had a similar style to Jackie Kennedy / Jackie Onassis. It was usually female journalists commenting. Sad that they left discussion of the transition from Republican to Democratic governance to their male colleagues. Along with the significance of the election of America’s first black president. It was as though many female journalists volunteered to let the men analyse the important stuff – US government policy for example – while the girls would, you know, just focus on the trivia. ‘What a shade of lipstick!!!’
Whoever leads the dissection of leaders’ partners – they are still predominantly female of course – the question we might ask them is “Why should we care?” The press gave reams of coverage to President Sarkozy’s marriage to and divorce from wife Cecilia – and then moved seamlessly on to his marriage to svelte and feline Carla Bruni. The women’s journalistic importance lasts as long as the marriage and is generally strictly related to their important husbands.
It’s true that where a wife is known to influence her husband’s political life – Hillary Clinton, Winnie Mandela, Cherie Blair – there may be some genuine public interest. But who really cares if a president’s wife wears red or green or has nice, ugly, fat, thin, long or short arms?
The 2010 UK general election made a bizarre feature of trotting out leaders’ wives to tell voters, simperingly, that their husband was a great guy to vote for. What could that possibly add to the national debate? If anyone was going to vote for their husbands surely they were. It could hardly constitute an election-winning argument. One of the candidates also had his mother turn up to say she’d be voting for her son….
There’s the whole daft sexist angle too. Who knows who Angela Merkel of Germany sleeps with? Who cares? She doesn’t trot a Mr Merkel out for public consumption although apparently there have been more than one. Ex-UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher frequently appeared with husband Denis who was widely known to be a bit of an old buffer who liked his booze. Female journalists did not obsess about his weight, clothes or hairstyle.
It’s true that sometimes a male world leader comes along who has a genuinely interesting or newsworthy wife. Winnie Mandela’s nefarious exploits while Nelson Mandela was in jail on Robben Island could hardly escape press notice. Jacqueline Bouvier, then Kennedy, then Onassis was also newsworthy in a quite different way. But the Kennedys moved on a different world stage from contemporary leaders.
Cherie Blair, Sarah Brown, and the British conservative leader’s wife, Samantha Cameron, are not intrinsically interesting to the public. Is Michelle Obama? I would say not. And especially not her upper arms.