Should We Care About The Cost of The First Lady's Clothes?
Michelle Obama, Ann Romney and the myth of the media double standard
Michelle Obama sparked a major media controversy for her choice of attire for a meeting with Queen Elizabeth. The outfit was dubbed “a disaster,” and “a major misstep.”
If you think I’m referring to this week’s headlines about the First Lady’s $6800 jacket, worn to an Olympics reception at Buckingham Palace, you’d be wrong. That’s what some critics said about the First Lady’s outfit the first time she met Queen Elizabeth. While this time she’s being lambasted for wearing an ensemble that was too over the top—in terms of price, at least—last time she was lambasted for being too dressed down.
The woman can’t seem to win.
Yet conservative media outlets are already attempting to construct a new media narrative, namely that while the mainstream media unfairly targeted Ann Romney for the $990 shirt she wore for a May TV appearance, the First Lady has essentially been given a free pass regarding her fashion choices. She’s fashion Barbie to Ann Romney’s much-maligned Skipper doll.
There’s just one problem: that’s not entirely true. While the First Lady may have gotten high marks in some corners for this particular jacket and other looks, her appearance and attire has been endlessly scrutinized and criticized since her husband took the oath of office. The Washington Post published a whole article criticizing the First Lady for not wearing length appropriate shorts. That article spawned countless other articles, blog posts and backlash, finally culminating in a poll asking Americans if it is okay for her to wear shorts. Then there was her controversial Alexander McQueen dress, which everyone seemed to have an opinion on—many of those opinions not particularly positive.
The core of the conservative argument in crying foul about the First Lady being praised for her expensive outfit while Ann Romney was pilloried seems to consist primarily of “it’s not fair.” (I think I’ve heard this same argument used a few times before, usually on my childhood playground.)
For the record, as someone who appreciates clothes, I still do not fully appreciate the concept of spending the equivalent of a mortgage payment on one item of clothing. But that does not mean that I don’t believe that someone who has the money to should be prevented from, or made to feel ashamed, for doing so. There are parallels to this faux controversy to the real controversy that erupted when hip-hop mogul P. Diddy’s son was awarded a scholarship to UCLA. As I explained at the time, the real issue was not that people disapprove of a celebrity’s child being awarded a scholarship that he or she rightfully earned. Plenty of celebrity children before Diddy’s have earned scholarships, among them Denzel Washington, and yet these celebrities have managed to avoid the same measure of media scrutiny and outcry his family generated.
The reason? Celebrities like Denzel Washington are best known for their philanthropy, and efforts to use their wealth to help others, not for bragging about their bling. In the case of the comparisons of the coverage of the First Lady versus the coverage of Ann Romney, there is a similar image gulf. It is no secret that Gov. Mitt Romney has struggled to shake his image as an out of touch real-life version of “Richie-Rich.” His offshore accounts and multiple mansions don’t exactly scream “everyman.” Then, of course, there is the small detail of his campaign promises that will benefit the wealthy (such as eliminating the estate tax, and opposing tax increases on the wealthy). So when his wife wears a $990 shirt, it only adds to the family’s image as out of touch and perhaps a bit selfish. (I can just hear a prospective voter saying, “Well, no wonder he doesn’t want to pay more in taxes. How would his Mrs. be able to afford her shirts?”)
On the other hand, President Obama has said he believes he and the First Lady should pay more taxes, because of their wealth. So the $6800 jacket doesn’t seem quite so problematic. After all, she and her husband are volunteering to give up more than that so that others who are not as fortunate as they are can benefit.
While I hate to admit this, I think the other reason the media reacted so differently to each woman’s garments is fairly obvious. People really liked the way the First Lady’s jacket looked. Ann Romney usually looks lovely, but I have yet to hear anyone say they actually liked her $990 shirt. So perhaps by focusing on price, critics did Mrs. Romney a favor.
Rachel Larris of the media watchdog group the Women’s Media Center sees things differently. She was not critical of either woman’s fashion choices or the costs, but was critical of the media coverage of this pseudo controversy at all. "We really wonder if a woman was running for president how much time the media would spend covering the cost of her husband's suits?” she asked.