The untalented Mrs Obama

Published: October 25, 2010
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The writer is a media and PR consultant based in London. She has a master’s degree in media anthropology from the School of African and Oriental Studies 
fifi.haroon@tribune.com.pk

The writer is a media and PR consultant based in London. She has a master’s degree in media anthropology from the School of African and Oriental Studies [email protected]

America’s First Lady was recently caught picking pumpkins in the White House garden for a Halloween photo-op as her husband charged off on a campaign to save a Democrat downslide in the US Senate. But that, apparently, is what powerful women do.

At least according to the International finance magazine Forbes, which recently published its 2010 list of the ‘Most Powerful Women in the world.’ Topping this year’s power 100, resplendent in a nostalgic Jackie Kennedy inspired black dress complete with white pearls and her very own famous sculpted arms was an unexpected winner: Mrs Michelle Obama.

Nice picture, bad choice.

Of all the successful, influential female achievers it could have picked to name as the most powerful woman in the world, why did Forbes see it fit to honour someone whose primary job is, well let’s face it — playing wifey?

This is not to disparage women who choose to stay at home to look after their children, or indeed belittle Mrs Obama’s ceremonial role as a presidential partner. Agreed, Michelle Obama is no airhead even if she is in the habit of self-effacingly describing herself primarily as “Malia and Sasha’s mom.” She is an Ivy League trained lawyer and — as women in her position often are — a vociferous champion of First Lady-like causes. In her case, green initiatives and the fight against childhood obesity.

All very well for a First Lady but hardly a glowing CV when pitching for First Woman. That the American President’s wife pips heads of state like German Chancellor Angela Merkel and global entrepreneurs such as Kraft Foods boss Irene Rosenfield at the post is downright insulting to all women.

Forbes claims that Mrs Obama has “given a new generation of girls and women around the world a role model.”  If girls around the world did indeed follow Mrs Obama’s example, they might study at Harvard only to abandon their careers, hope to marry a president and look picture perfect in designer dresses. How does that elevate her over someone like, say Hillary Clinton, who emerged from her husband’s shadow to make a spirited bid for the Democrat Presidential nomination and finally took on the challenging job of the US Secretary of State?

Michelle Obama’s first appearance on the list was in 2009 at a more convincing number 40. The entry is telling: “Michelle has avoided any major policy speeches… (and) has garnered the most publicity for her fashion sense… a book on the subject has already been written, Michelle Style: Celebrating the First Lady of Fashion.” That pretty much says it all.

What exactly has Mrs Obama done in the 12 months since that was published to warrant such an acrobatic vault from clothes-horse to the world’s most influential woman? Obviously nothing that would qualify her inclusion in Forbes’ generic 100 Most Powerful People list, which only features two women: Angela Merkel and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Yet she supersedes both of them in the gender-specific list.

The answer is actually simpler than one may think. Forbes is an old-fashioned US-centric men’s publication that still believes it is perfectly valid to selectively confuse fame with power and populate a Powerful Women’s list with pop stars, television presenters and a wife, while keeping its male-dominated Powerful People’s List exclusively political.

Even if one overlooks the magazine’s blatantly gendered criteria, can one forgive it for regurgitating the outdated power-behind-the-throne myth? (Not that there a smidgeon of evidence that Michelle Obama is particularly involved in her husband’s policy decisions). There is nothing intrinsic in Michelle Obama’s claim to fame. Much as I detest Sarah Palin’s roguish opportunism, her incessant tea-partying and successful power-brokering in the Republican primaries establish her as a woman of real power in a way Michelle Obama simply cannot rival. That her knowledge of foreign policy is pea-sized is incidental.

Published in The Express Tribune, October 25th, 2010.

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Reader Comments (29)

  • Oct 25, 2010 - 5:18AM

    You seem to equate power with powerful positions. That may be how you measure one’s success or even perhaps your own, but power does not require a throne from which to give orders. I did not vote for Obama, nor am a liberal or Democrat. I am a registered Republican, albeit moderate in principles, but I really feel that your op-ed is completely simplistic and skewed. Ask any young girl today who Hillary Clinton is or to describe her role in the White House Administration and I’m certain you will get a blank stare. Ask them about Michelle Obama and you will not only get recognition, you will certainly have many say that she is President Obama’s wife. As such, she is one of these most visible women in the world and one that rarely has an agenda other than being a partner to her husband.

    Little girls know what a mom is and they certainly understand a wife and caregiver. My mother, along with my father, raised three college educated children. Two have careers and one is a career volunteer that, although highly educated, she felt that she wanted to take on the project of raising her three children as opposed to building advertising campaigns and marketing slogans that would become obsolete long after she passes away.

    Wives and mothers are the single most influential person in a young girl’s life. Their values and morals are taught and passed on for generations. My grandmother raised three boys, who married and together had nine children. Those nine children produced 16 children. Her influence was great and her power was much more immense and far-reaching than any one person who chooses to take her Harvard degree and put it to use in a career. It’s unfortunate that you see Michelle Obama as untalented and a failure because she is not shaking the trees in the business world. That is not power. That is position. I have spent years writing about influential women and each one rarely reached the depths of notoriety in their lifetime. In fact, if you look at how women gained the right to vote, you’ll see that it was Tennessee State Representative Harry T. Burn who broke with his party, against what you would consider the most “powerful” men in the state, to vote in favor of women’s suffrage because his mother wrote him a letter and asked him to do it. http://meandmy1000girlfriends.com/?p=605 No that is power.Recommend

  • Humanity
    Oct 25, 2010 - 7:27AM

    None sense ..

    Pakistan is drowning and burning at the same time. The country has much bigger worries than to reflect on Forbe’s pick of the most influential women.Recommend

  • Alan Srout
    Oct 25, 2010 - 8:42AM

    Governor Sarah Palin dealt successfully with the Canadian and Russian governments, big oil and mining companies, and has been boning up on foreign affairs since 2008. What foreign policy experience did Secretary Clinton have before this job? And why did both Mr. & Mrs. Obama give up their law licenses in Illinois? Recommend

  • free2beyogi
    Oct 25, 2010 - 8:48AM

    Awww, suck it up. Michelle is powerful just because of who she is and not what she has done, which is pretty damn cool….. Recommend

  • Anonymous
    Oct 25, 2010 - 11:27AM

    Can clearly sense your outrage – but, am forced to disagree with your thesis as well as your contention that you are not being disparaging to women who choose to stay home to look after their children. Having played both roles – what you disparagingly dismiss as “wifey” as well as that as a career-person – let me assure you that the former is a far more exacting one, takes way more commitment, requires one to be on one’s best 24/7, and (the most frustrating of all) is unpaid. I will continue to have a huge amount of respect for Michelle Obama and women like her. This is post-medernism at its best – its is about making the choices. She chose to marry the man she wanted, have the children, give up her career plans to devote time and effort to bring up those children, and probably side-lined her career because she saw the need to devote energies to keeping her family unit together. It is not the “power-behind-the-throne myth” that makes a woman like Michelle Obama special – its the fact that she has chosen to a certain path in her life, and has been able to stick by it with great dignity, and retain her independent personality at the same time. To that affect, Forbes is right that she has been able to give women a new role model – it is extremely depressing for stay-at-home women to be dismissed in comparison to working women.

    NOW – having said all that – Forbes is irritatingly right-wing and it is a far fetch to choose Michelle Obama as THE most powerful woman in the world, merely because she shares living quarters with the most powerful man in the world and has good fashion sense. Recommend

  • jpeditor
    Oct 25, 2010 - 11:35AM

    “Michelle is powerful just because of who she is”…

    What are you, An Obama staffer? Both?

    Before the election the woman ran a virtual no-show job office out of a Chicago hospital where her big play was to get more $ out of her husband’s connections for more no-show jobs….and she failed.

    She sat in the same hate-filled “church” with her husband for 20 years and “heard nothing”.

    She was never proud of America until her husband duped millions of Americans with his “strange” campaign and now he’s on his way to destroying the greatest nation on the planet while she grows pumpkins, spends our money on her friends vacations in Spain.
    Anyone who lauds praise on her and her husband should be locked up.

    And no, I can’t believe I am agreeing with a columnist in Karachi.Recommend

  • Oct 25, 2010 - 2:09PM

    I agree with Kathy Scott to more than some extent. Many influential people in the world do not have or get powerful positions in life. Michelle Obama has power – She is the wife of US President.Recommend

  • parvez
    Oct 25, 2010 - 3:22PM

    The list was for the Most Powerful Women in the world. Michelle Obama may qualify for being on the list but certainly not at the top of it.
    Also the title is misleading as Mrs Obama is anything but untalented.Recommend

  • Jafakush
    Oct 25, 2010 - 3:54PM

    Corporate media started promoted Mr. & Mrs. Obama and smear campaign awaits anyone who opposed him in election polls. Nobel prize, Forbes list, Time & Newsweek Magazine covers, feel good stories is just part of that campaign. JFK was anti-CIA and anti-Fed, which Obama is not. He is spoke person of CFR, and Tribune should stop promoting CFR words which Obama parrots.Recommend

  • Fifi Haroon
    Oct 25, 2010 - 6:00PM

    To JPEditor: Actually I doubt we agree as much as you seem to believe. The “untalented” tag was a bit of an attention-grabber. I don’t think the Obama’s are evil at all. So I’m definitely not accompanying you down THAT route.
    To “Anonymous” and “Kathy Scott”: I agree that by using terms like “wifey” I probably came across as somewhat dismissive of home makers. My issue actually is not with women who stay at home; rather it is with Forbes’ double standards in the men and women it chooses to recognize through its lists. And on a larger level with conservative, traditional media for reinforcing certain established notions of gender identity. I understand that being a mother is a worthwhile career, and that “power” should not be limited to institutions. However, Michelle Obama has not been placed on top of the list for being a good mother; If so, I am sure there are many more women who could have been recognized as excellent mothers if that was really the case – thought I would also argue that assigning power positions in the private rather than public domain would bring up fresh issues. The Power 100 list isn’t really a Best Mom contest. In either case Michelle Obama tops that list not because she a great mother, but because she is a famous wife. This is recognizing her for reflected glory rather than independent achievement; akin to putting Prince Phillip on top of the men’s list. Or Dennis Thatcher when Margaret Thatcher was PM. Why is it that while that seems totally inane, putting Mrs Obama in the number one slot is deemed totally acceptable?
    Forbes does not recognize its “powerful” men for being husbands or fathers. Actually its powerful men list doesn’t include celebrities such as Bono or George Clooney (both fairly “political” and infulential) while the female list is replete with celebrities from Lady Gaga to Beyonce. Why this disparity? Either it should expand its definition of “power” or use similar criterion for both men and women
    To be honest I have no major quarrels with Mrs Obama. Or Beyonce or Lady Gaga. I think Bono and George Clooney probably would add texture to the powerful men list. I don’t even have a problem with Michelle Obama being number 40 on the list. But I don’t think that elevating her above women who have reached the top on their own merit is beneficial to young girls trying to make life choices or women who are fighting for recognition in the public domain around the world. In fact it is deeply distressing and damaging.Recommend

  • Jake
    Oct 25, 2010 - 6:06PM

    I love it when half-wit liberals have to begrudgingly acknowledge that Sarah Palin is more powerful than Marie Antoinette — excuse me, Michelle Obama. While Michelle has been wasting mountains of taxpayer dollars on her vacations while 15 million Americans have lost their jobs under her husband’s disastrous watch, Sarah Palin has been quietly building a political force that will turn Washington on its head in a week.

    Sarah rocks. And despite the media’s best efforts, Michelle is built like a Wookiee and is certainly no fashion icon. Recommend

  • Bangash
    Oct 25, 2010 - 8:07PM

    what does this have to do with Pakistan ? ! Recommend

  • Jaffakush
    Oct 25, 2010 - 8:54PM

    Bangash, watch part 2 of men behind Obama on you tube.Recommend

  • hamza khan
    Oct 25, 2010 - 9:31PM

    Jake: I will love it when Sarah Palin-loving conservatives like yourself will grudgingly accept that President Obama’s disastrous watch was in fact not disastrous at all, because the disaster was already done by W. And God forbid if Sarah Palin gets elected to office int this country, the greatness of the US will be diminished by all that much. So, no sorry. Sarah does not rock. She’s a conservative that has no idea on how to run a country or foreign policy. God save the US from people like her. Recommend

  • Humanity
    Oct 26, 2010 - 1:22AM

    @Fifi Haroon “The “untalented” tag was a bit of an attention-grabber.

    So in your view there is nothing wrong in using a misleading title to grab attention. You may consider it talent. I call it being deceitful. It only exposes a shallow lazy mind seeking attention by hook or by crook.

    Are you sure you are qualified to comment one way or the other on Michelle Obama’s talents? How much do you know about Michelle Obama and what research did you do before forming this opinion? It is prudent and dignified to just stay silent, if you have nothing meaningful to say rather than make noise for attention.

    Michelle Omaba is a role model for woman all over the world. If more women in this world would achieve what Michelle Obama has accomplished as a woman coming from a working class colored family, the world would be a much better place. I suggest you please read her biography to open up your mind. Writing about her accomplishments would be a good contribution towards showing girls and women the possibilities opened up through focus, hard work, and commitment. Recommend

  • Chuckie
    Oct 26, 2010 - 3:20AM

    “She has a master’s degree in media anthropology from the School of African and Oriental Studies”

    That’s all I need to know about the author.Recommend

  • Fifi Haroon
    Oct 26, 2010 - 3:25AM

    @ Humanity: I didn’t say it was misleading, I said it was an “attention grabber” and provocative as headlines by their very nature are meant to be.There is a marked difference. And since you asked, my primary research in Media anthropology has been on gender representation and the female image in visual culture.

    You might find it interesting that according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Mrs Obama’s approval ratings in the US, while higher than her husband’s, dropped from 64% to 50% in August after a lavish Spanish trip. It would be interesting to know on what research you base her popularity amongst women “all over the world.” and even more interesting to gauge how much of that interest revolves around what she’s wearing.Recommend

  • Oct 26, 2010 - 5:21AM

    We liberals are in a fix. And I am so sorry Sarah Palin, in particular your recent progress in politics. We have NO rights to make fun of you, when we have had hailed someone like Mrs Obama in the past. Recommend

  • Amanat ali
    Oct 26, 2010 - 12:10PM

    This is not an issue to comments. We should take care of our selves.Recommend

  • Hasan Shafi
    Oct 26, 2010 - 12:29PM

    “SUCCESS SHOULD NOT BE MEASURED BY THE POSITON ONE IS AT BUT BY THE OBSTACCLES THAT HE/SHE HAD TO GO THROUGH TO REACH THAT POSITION”Recommend

  • parvez
    Oct 26, 2010 - 2:40PM

    The jury that picked Michelle Obama for the first place on Most Powerful Women in the World is the same who picked President Obama for the Nobel Peace prize. Duh !Recommend

  • mickeymat
    Oct 26, 2010 - 3:52PM

    One need only read Michelle Obama’s graduate thesis for insight into the mind of a seventh grader. I think you can still Google it.Recommend

  • F.K
    Oct 26, 2010 - 8:28PM

    Nice tries at brow beating the author because as she is from pakistan, she apparently “does not” have the right to comment on the first worlds first wife? What a joke.

    The authors completely spot on, compared to hillary or merkel mrs obama has not done much to warrant a place on that list. If indeed homemakers are so important in american culture why not name the woman raising the most kids without a job in the u.s?

    But then this same world gave the nobel peace prize to a president who although great at orating is responsible for so many deaths in the war in afghanistan and iraq.Recommend

  • Meekal Ahmed
    Oct 26, 2010 - 9:44PM

    I think you are being insulting, Madam.

    She is a graceful person with great looks, an impeccable sense of dress, and a great mind too. And yes, she is a role model to America’s troubled kids. I live here, my kids attend school/college here and I know what I am talking about.

    Having said that, I don’t think any of the above qualifies her to be amongst the ranks of powerful women but I suppose her “power” flows off her husband.

    I would imagine the law requires her to quit her job to avoid conflict of interest issues. So she stays at home.

    A “graduate thesis” with the contents of a “seventh grader”? Really? That sounds like someone from the fifth grade speaking. Recommend

  • Humanity
    Oct 26, 2010 - 9:59PM

    @Fifi “I didn’t say it was misleading, I said it was an “attention grabber” and provocative as headlines by their very nature are meant to be.There is a marked difference.

    The headline is a sound bite that resonates long after the details fade away. Just reading the headline made me cringe. It sounded harsh and judgmental and I lost the desire to read the article. To justify the headline an attention grabber and not as a true representation of a point of view is disingenuous scholarship.

    @Fifi Haroon “You might find it interesting that according to a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, Mrs Obama’s approval ratings in the US, while higher than her husband’s, dropped from 64% to 50% in August after a lavish Spanish trip. It would be interesting to know on what research you base her popularity amongst women “all over the world.” and even more interesting to gauge how much of that interest revolves around what she’s wearing.

    Wow! I see. It is disappointing to see that an opinion was formed based on some poll results and on a trip that the First Lady was entitled to. To not have done independent and critical thinking by at least reading about Michelle Obama’s accomplishments, renders the opinion unfounded and baseless . It seems the write up is an outcome of internalizing FOX propaganda and buying into the ignorance being peddled by Rush Limbaugh and his fans.

    Michelle Obama is a good example for women all around the world. She represents values we ought to teach our children. Who wouldn’t agree that girls all around the world should work hard and overcome obstacles for a better future? Who wouldn’t encourage girls to stay in school and get an education instead of becoming hopeless, drop outs? And that she dresses up elegantly, only goes to her credit. She is the First Lady, for God’s sake. Not only that, women are anyhow entitled to take care of themselves and show that they have self esteem.

    It is discouraging that people, especially educated women, are not able to appreciate the obstacles that Michelle Obama overcame. She stands tall on her own (and I am not talking about her height :)). That she is the first black First Lady is a giant leap for humanity. She makes me proud of her with and without Forbes certification.

    On a final note, when one chooses to share an opinion publicly, one should be prepared to take feedback objectively and with grace. Keep writing. Good luck and best regards.Recommend

  • Neeraj, India
    Oct 26, 2010 - 10:58PM

    I agree with the author completely. Michelle Omaba could be a nice woman, a decent wife and a good mother etc., but she cannot be called the most powerful woman. A person is called most powerful, only if he/she enjoys enormous influence to make an impact on other people’s lives and Mrs Obama don’t fit into that category.
    German chancellor Mrs. Angela Merkel can be cited as an example. It was her generosity that saved European countries such as Greece going totally bankrupt, thereby impacting the lives of millions. That is called power!Recommend

  • Nov 4, 2010 - 10:24AM

    Haroon replied: ” I don’t think the Obama’s are evil at all. So I’m definitely not accompanying you down THAT route.”

    Either you don’t believe they are evil because you agree with them that destroying America for islamo-marxist “anti-colonialist” plan is “good”, or you then have to admit they are evil, or that they are destroying the West “accidentally”.Recommend

  • GiGi Moore
    Nov 9, 2010 - 12:19AM

    What’s that I smell in the air? Oh, some “HATER-AIDE”. I expect someone not from this country to not understand the power and symbolism that President Obama and his wife holds on so many levels. This influence crosses racial divides and crosses bridges from the young to the most senior in our society. Mrs. Obama’s role is not to over shadow President Obama, but be a helpmate to him as he runs this wonderful country. The power that Mrs. Obama possesses may not come in the package that you find worthy, but her position puts her in arenas where she is touching and inspiring people both in the United States and around the world. With that said, being able to do that alone is powerful. Yes, there have been other president wives, but none like Mrs. Obama. Oh, just for the record, Sara Palin rival with Mrs. Michelle Obama? Please………….Mrs. Obama is a lady and Sara Palin is letting her white hood show.Recommend

  • Robin Laurain
    Nov 12, 2010 - 1:32AM

    The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world. When you become a wife and mother you will then realize how much “talent” it takes to be good at both. The nice thing about being a woman today is that we have the choice to do what we choose. Your view is simplistic. Michelle has her priorities correct and is a wonderful role model to all women, but especially to black women who have grown up in a culture of baby mommas, crack hoe’s, etc. and have had these stereo-typical images in their faces by the media and Hollywood. Michelle knows what she is doing and to compare her to Sarah Palin is a reach. I never could imagine Michelle Obama pimping her children out in such a fashion as Palin, Inc. has done. Todd is just as much to blame as Sarah in exploiting his family.Recommend

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