Taming it Down

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An untrained ear listening to Michelle Obama speak at the Democratic National Convention might have dismissed her carefully scripted and reassuring comments as the unfortunate repackaging of a woman derided for being too strong and outspoken.

But perhaps the audience was witnessing something entirely the opposite, a Michelle Obama so confident in her essential self that she could easily step into subdued tones to reflect a more average part of her biography, a part that is as authentic as her Ivy League accolades.


Numerous political spouses have had to strike the tone that Michelle did before the energized crowd in Denver. Hillary Clinton, in years past, has done a version of the steady and incombustible spouse. But Clinton's renditions always appeared more strained than Michelle Obama's did.

Obama's voice was a bit softer than usual, her facial expressions and hand gestures minimized, her language and choice of words carefully calibrated to leave little room for misinterpretation. She even gave up her figure-touting, sleeveless dresses for a more conservative one that concealed some of her physical strength. She spoke of her love for the United States and how she's tried to give back "in my own small way to this country that has given me so much." It was an obvious response to the widespread criticism that she was not sufficiently patriotic, nor grateful enough for her accomplishments, as if they were simply given to her and she had not worked hard to earn them.

She drew repeated parallels between the values she was raised with and passed on to her own children and those shared by average hard-working American families. And she seemed utterly comfortable in the role.

Michelle's speech represented a conscious shedding of any attributes that could be even remotely suggestive of an "angry black woman." It represented the debunking of stereotypes attached to her by some in the media who portrayed her as sassy, pushy and overly opinionated.


I got it. Watching her speak to the enthusiastic crowd that packed Denver's Pepsi Center, I recognized that careful calibration that accomplished women, especially black women, have to work into their dealings with people uncomfortable with their talents, achievements and self-assurance.

The swipes at Michelle Obama were also swipes at scores of black women who have worked hard, aimed high and accomplished much only to be reduced to a stereotype, repeatedly asked to explain themselves and to justify their existence.


Michelle Obama, the girl from the working-class family on the hardscrabble South Side of Chicago, and Michelle Obama the Ivy-League-educated woman pulling down a six-figure salary, represent the fullness of many women's identities. She knows what it's like to struggle and what it's like to succeed. Focusing more on one aspect of her persona, to calm the jittery masses, does not in any way diminish the other side.

Her speech was less compelling than others she has given in the past. It was less fierce, less likely to leave listeners focusing on her rather than her candidate spouse. But political watchers would be remiss to think it represented a Michelle who had been effectively, "put in her place." She stood squarely in her place, with the quiet confidence of someone who believes she has every right to be there.


Marjorie Valbrun is a Washington, D.C. based journalist.

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