There’s a curious joy deficit in Michelle Obama’s video memoir Becoming, the Netflix documentary produced by her and her husband. As she glides from one beautiful space to another, surrounded by beautiful and famous people, with beautiful daughters and a beautiful bank account and much else to be grateful for, the viewer keeps waiting for her Flounder moment: Oh, boy, is this great!
Instead, the tone is mostly dour, pained, even somber. I suspect (and hope!) that, off-camera, the Obamas are a bit more full of joie de vivre than Michelle Obama is in this film, which is largely a litany of complaint. She says she felt so much pressure to be perfect for eight years in the White House that when it was over she let the dam burst by crying for half an hour (half an hour?) when she and her husband departed on Air Force One. She talks about the various times she feels she was targeted by racism, exaggerating what actually happened. She walks us through her press coverage, which she finds indescribably unfair and hurtful.
She is, however, so bereft of examples of nasty media attention to cite that two of the examples she shows us are ironic, i.e. the joke is on her detractors. One of them is a cover story in the (left-wing) magazine Radar that asked, wryly, “What’s So Scary about Michelle Obama?” (The underlying story, by Ana Marie Cox, made it clear that there was nothing scary about Michelle Obama.) Another is the famous New Yorker cartoon cover that depicted Barack Obama in traditional Muslim dress and put Michelle Obama in an Afro, with an assault rifle and a bandoleer on her chest, as an American flag burned in the fireplace. The Obamas complained about this at the time and many pointed out that a) The New Yorker has always been a vociferous supporter of the Obamas and b) the cartoon was portraying an obviously fanciful image of the Obamas that existed solely in the fever dreams of right-wingers. The New Yorker itself hastened to explain the joke at the time, which must have been painful for that institution.
Both Obamas are graduates of Harvard Law School, so it seems unlikely that they’re too dumb to have gotten the joke, which means they’re simply pretending not to get the joke in order to create a phony grievance. Most of the rest of the “can you believe how the media ripped her apart?” montage in the movie consists of stray remarks made on Fox News Channel, but if you’re turning on Fox News in search of insults, you’re really going out of your way to be aggrieved. Much of this coverage was, by the way, inspired by Michelle’s remark, “For the first time in my adult lifetime, I’m really proud of my country and not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change.” Mrs. Obama doesn’t defend this remark at all in the doc except to grumble that it was taken out of context, and admits that this was the last time she was allowed to speak off the cuff in public. So Fox News talking heads apparently were on the same side as the Obama campaign in thinking that this was a dumb thing for her to say.
Another magazine cover shown in the film is one by National Review. On April 25, 2008, we ran a cover story captioned “Mrs. Grievance,” with a cartoon of Mrs. Obama. (The story, by Mark Steyn, began like this: “Michelle, ma belle: These are words that go together well. She looks fabulous, like a presidential spouse out of some dream movie — glossy hair, triple strand of pearls, vaguely retro suits that subtly remind you she’d be the most glamorous first lady since Jackie Kennedy.”) The story wasn’t exactly a rain of hellfire, and since Michelle Obama indisputably had (and has) a habit of discussing her various grievances, the cover headline was, far from an unfair attack, an objective description of reality.
This section of the movie (which, I remind you, was produced by the Obamas themselves) lies by omission, leaving out the ocean of favorable press coverage received by Michelle Obama and focusing exclusively at the puddle of negative attention. Michelle Obama may have received the most glowing press coverage of all time among figures who achieved her level of fame. Even Beyoncé must sometimes think, “What do I have to do to get that level of adulation?” And Beyoncé, unlike Mrs. Obama, actually possesses a massive amount of talent.
What Steyn put his finger on back in 2008 remains a pertinent question: Why is Michelle Obama so aggrieved? “I have troubles” is not usually the message of a First Lady. Usually it’s more like, “I have a lot of hats” or, “I have a literacy program.”
True, the gilded-cage aspect of life as a First Lady of the United States must be more trying than it appears from the outside. On the other hand, unlike a president, a First Lady gets a life of super-luxury without actually having to do anything. No one expected Michelle Obama to solve health care. No one was peppering her with thorny queries for eight years. (If we’re being honest, not that many reporters were throwing “gotcha” questions at her husband, either.) Moreover, even among world-famous, super-rich celebrities, a First Lady is in a special category: She was and is in the position of being able to use federal officers to maintain a zone of privacy. All she had to do was . . . smile and wave. Occasionally cut a ribbon or host a dinner. Like royalty. If there’s an easier job in the world, I don’t know what it is. Hair stylist on her feet all day? Teacher dealing with bumptious children? Stay-at-home-mom making multiple frenzied runs to Target and Judo practice and viola lessons while worrying about meals and managing the household budget? Nope, all of these jobs are far more demanding. Yet Obama tells us in the movie that the point of her book tour “is to be able to have the time to actually reflect, to figure out what just happened to me. It’s kind of the panic moment of, yeah, this is totally me.” So what Michelle Obama feels short of is . . . time to think about herself? She feels “panic”? Michelle Obama is an unemployed, extremely wealthy woman whose children are grown. If anyone has “time to actually reflect,” it is she.
At the climactic point of the film, she returns to the subject of racism, which she touched on several times earlier. “We have to be willing to say who we are. I am the former First Lady of the United States and also a descendant of slaves. It’s important to keep that truth right there,” she says. She has said this before, but the meaning for her is not what it might be for you or me. She isn’t saying, “Gosh, the country certainly has changed for the better!” The point is something close to the opposite: “No matter how splendid your life may be, if you’re black there is unexploded ordnance in the backyard.” She notes, “Barack and I lived with an awareness that we ourselves were a provocation. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Freddie Gray. Eric Garner. Trayvon Martin. Sandra Bland. . . .You see people gunned down because somebody was so afraid of a kid in a hoodie that that ended his life. So how were these people dealing with the fact that a black family was in what they perceived as their White House?”
Putting Michael Brown, who the Obama Justice Department confirmed was attacking a cop when he got shot, and Tamir Rice, a little kid playing with a toy, in the same category is unserious, and neither of them has much to do with the Obamas. The point of bringing up these names seems to be a chilling one: They’d shoot us if they could. I wonder if Michelle Obama really looks back on her blessed American life and considers this to be the takeaway. If so, despite her glamour, despite her millions, despite her access to the finest people and places on Earth, I feel sorry for her.