At the 2008 Democratic National Convention, Hillary Clinton stepped in front of a raucous audience of delegates, guns blazing, and passionately declaimed that, "although we weren't able to shatter that highest, hardest glass ceiling this time, thanks to you, it's got about 18 million cracks in it." Today, she's busy jetting to and fro, tending to matters of state, and according to a recent New York Times story, she hasn't had time to watch a movie or read a book since Obama took office. One hopes she hasn't had time to read the headlines or surf news-aggregate sites either, because she might find many of the stories she comes across to be disquieting reminders that the same ceiling she struggled so hard to break through remains securely intact.
From fawning stories about Michelle Obama that focus on what designers she's wearing today to the suggestion of an unofficial sartorial contest between her and Carla Bruni-Sarkozy, to the trashy coverage and trite caricatures of other political spouses, such as Elizabeth Edwards and Veronica Lario, we seem to have entered a strange time warp, where some of the most publicly visible women on the world stage are reduced to playing shallow supporting characters to their lesser halves, while all the good parts go to the leading men. Instead of the brave new post-racial, post-gender world that the West lays dubious claim to be on the verge of actualizing, this kind of media coverage seems closer to an assertion of subconsciously sexist tendencies in American and European societies, an insidious suggestion that women are more palatable when we don't have to take them seriously.
It might seem that Obama and Bruni-Sarkozy are getting the good end of the bargain—after all, why wouldn't they enjoy being celebrated for their sophisticated sense of style? Well, in Obama's case, having a degree from Harvard Law School and a powerhouse career, she might want to be known for more than what shoes she's wearing while gardening. Bruni-Sarkozy is more entangled with the world of appearances, having wowed the fashion world as a supermodel for many years, but she's also a best-selling singer and songwriter. Besides, the argument that she should be used to being objectified and that she isn't owed anything different as France's first lady is as flawed as the idea that a beautiful woman who wears a revealing outfit is inviting verbal harassment. Considering the public scrutiny both women are under, it's no wonder that they're trying to err on the side of chicness. The more important question is why the media care so much. Both women would be better served by an equal amount of attention on the initiatives they are attempting to build support for, such as, in Obama's case, support for military families.
Some political spouses find themselves receiving more patently negative attention. Elizabeth Edwards, the cancer-stricken wife of onetime presidential hopeful John Edwards, suffered public humiliation after the revelation of her husband's longterm affair and alleged love child with freelance campaign contractor Rielle Hunter. Recently, Edwards, a vocal advocate for women's health and cancer patients, submitted to pop culture's ultimate confessional: a sitdown with the queen of daytime TV, Oprah Winfrey. After suffering months of innuendo and commentary about her private life, while she underwent intensive medical therapy, she is publishing a memoir, Resilience. Instead of focusing on her struggle to survive and her remarkable life, however, the news media obsesses over any references she makes to her husband's adultery. Referring to a passage in the book in which she admits to crying, screaming and throwing up in a bathroom after learning of the affair, Oprah asker Edwards if she still loves her husband. If Edwards wants to attract attention for her larger message, she has to make a Faustian bargain, suffering the indignity of the media's tabloid interest in her life.
Veronica Lario, wife of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, finds herself in an analogous situation—after years of rumors of extramarital affairs and his brazen flirtations with other women (prompting a public apology to his wife two years ago), she has filed for divorce after news broke of Berlusconi attending the 18th-birthday party of Noemi Letizia, who calls him "Daddy." Though she has maintained a low public profile throughout her marriage, Lario has resorted to open letters to the media on two occasions as the only means of recourse she felt she had to counteract his humiliating public behavior. In the first, she says, "I see these statements as damaging my dignity. To both my husband and the public man, I therefore demand a public apology, since I haven't received any privately. I have faced the inevitable contrasts and the more painful moments that a long conjugal relation entails with respect and discretion." The press was only too happy to play along, and as a result, the retired actress has been typecast as the "wronged woman," the foil to Berlusconi's over-the-top, Lothario act.
While the world seems increasingly comfortable with placing women in positions of political power, there seems to be a corresponding instinct to trivialize those who are married to powerful male politicians by counterbalancing this newfound respect with a healthy dose of condescension, or even contempt. Condoleezza Rice, Sonia Gandhi and Angela Merkel have all been subjected to a double standard of scrutiny sometime in their careers, but because of the power they wielded, the press was only able to diminish, not dismiss them. When it comes to female political wives, however, it's easy to project our unresolved gender biases onto them. If you're not a secretary of state, party leader or prime minister, well, then, you're just the missus, and that means you're fair game to be reduced to a cliché.
The media needs to shelve the insidious, insincere fluff pieces that pretend to compliment or sympathize with their subjects and sit down and discuss the issue of sexism in a more honest, straightforward way that acknowledges both our darker instincts and our urge for political correctness. Until then, we can look forward to an increasingly crass news cycle that reinforces stereotypes while reveling in the insignificant, such as the fact that Michelle Obama wore Lanvin sneakers while volunteering at a food bank last week. If we don't have something more important to pay attention to, then we've got a serious problem.