Every fourth year, women’s magazines present some version of a “meet the candidates’ wives” feature. These stories are inevitably framed in terms of traditional gender roles, reflecting the wife-as-helpmeet role still played by the First Lady, even in the 21st century. Family Circle, for instance, runs dueling cookie recipes in a tradition dating back to 1992 — the year Hillary Clinton made her infamous remark during the primaries about not being a cookie-baking, stand-by-your-man kinda dame, but was persuaded to (coerced into?) sharing a cookie recipe once the general election rolled around. (This year, by the way, Michelle Obama won.)
In its November issue, Good Housekeeping honored the tradition in a slightly less demeaning fashion, in the form of a matched pair of interviews with Michelle Obama and Ann Romney, the two women who hope to be First Lady of the United States come January.
As is usual, the format is resolutely even-handed. Each woman got a total of four pages, a full-page picture and three pages devoted to a Q-and-A session involving similar, and very standard, Q’s and A’s: What is your husband really like (A: a loving husband and father, a hard worker with a good sense of humor), what would your issue be as first lady, and so forth. Both was asked about the role of prayer — not faith, interestingly enough — and both are pro-prayer.*
Neither woman says anything unexpected or newsworthy in the ritualized interviews — though I had not known that President Obama is the assistant coach of daughter Sasha’s basketball team, I was not astonished to learn it. Most readers will find themselves charmed by the woman married to the candidate they prefer, and undoubtedly roll their eyes at one or more statements by the woman married to the candidate they don’t.
The most striking thing to me was that the parity in presentation extended to the full-page photo of each woman. Each photo is on the left-hand page of the two-page spread that starts the section; each is of a woman standing next to a window in a formal room of some sort. And each woman is dressed in yellow.
Yellow? This struck my attention when I got to Ann Romney’s photo, the second of the two. “Yikes,” thought I, “that’s not a good color on her, with her hair color and skin tone.” Maybe this was a crack in the even-handedness of the presentation? I flipped back and looked at Michelle Obama’s photo more carefully. Hm. She was also in yellow, but — despite the fact that, like most black women, she can look amazing in yellow — it was not her usual chic, polished outfit. She wore was a fussy sweater oddly buttoned and definitely looking a little small.
Why would both women appear in unflattering outfits in the same color? Presumably they were both told to wear yellow, but why yellow?
It might be a subliminal nod to the White House’s Yellow Room, where First Ladies have entertained wives of other heads of state for the last half century or so. Or perhaps the idea was to avoid red and blue, the traditional colors for campaigning wives, and put them instead in the third primary color — one without a symbolic association with either political party.
Or maybe it was just to ensure that the pictures were equally unflattering.
*I don’t want to get into serious issues in this post. I did, however, write a fairly substantial piece for Broad Street Review on the role that religion has played in this election, if you’re interested.