The Sexist Hype Around the Obamas and Helle Thorning-Schmidt

The toxic effect of a pervasive expectation about how female political leaders ought to look
Helle Thorning-Schmidt and Barack Obama chat as Michelle Obama casts a glance their way during the memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg. (Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images)

Barack Obama's remarks at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela in Johannesburg were just one of the many notable things about his appearance there. There was that handshake with Raul Castro. The selfie with British Prime Minister David Cameron and Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt.

And then there was the latest instance of Michelle Obama giving "le boss de la Maison Blanche" what some French news outlets are inartfully calling "le regard noir"—literally "a black look," or what we call stink-eye. The first lady giving stink-eye has become a minor Internet meme, as in this shot of her glancing at Carla Bruni in 2009, or this video of her giving John Boehner "epic stink-eye" at the inaugural luncheon in January.

People on Twitter had fun with the images of the president and Thorning-Schmidt at the memorial service, sharing shots and assembling the photos into a brief narrative montage, as New York Post social-media editor Joel Pavelski did with these AFP images:

The president laughing with a blonde! One can only imagine what he is thinking! Except the blonde happens to be a prime minister in her own right, and if you examine the whole string of photos of the memorial, you'll see that Michelle Obama's countenance scarcely changes. You might call that being appropriately somber, or you might posit that it's simply the look of a person with jetlag who flew halfway around the world overnight, spent four hours at a hotel early in the morning, and then had to go to a memorial service.

 Alexander Joe/AFP/Getty Images

See? Basically the same expression. Her expression remains roughly the same even when she's the one inside the circle of conversation:

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Nor was former President George W. Bush immune from the presumption of leering as he spoke to Queen Rania of Jordan.*

The whole thing shows that the idea that a younger, feminine, stylish woman can also be a person of power—a ruler of men, rather than the object of their affectionate interest—continues to confound.

Underlying the tittering is, perhaps, the idea that wives appropriately look like Michelle Obama or Queen Rania or Carla Bruni, while national leaders look like Angela Merkel or Hillary Clinton, and that there is therefore an inherent frisson in an animated conversation between two national leaders when one of them also happens to be not just female but self-consciously feminine.

This same undercurrent of awkwardness greeted Vice President Biden when he met with then-Ukrainian Prime Minister Yulia Tymoshenko in 2009. (It didn't help that Biden was overheard telling President Viktor Yushchenko that Ukranian women are "the most beautiful women in the world. That's my observation.")

Biden and Yulia Tymoshenko in Kiev in 2009. (Sergei Supinsky/AFP/Getty Images)

At some point we'll have to be able to look at a picture like this and see not a Chesire Cat grin and a foreign beauty, but two national leaders, grasping hands in comity, as leaders do.


* Correction: An earlier version of this post stated that Bush was speaking with Princess Letitzia of Spain. We regret the error.

Presented by

Garance Franke-Ruta is a former senior editor covering national politics at The Atlantic.

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