Thursday, March 5, 2009

The New Arms Debate

First Lady Michelle Obama in the White House kitchen with Executive Chef Cristeta Comerford.
The New Arms Debate
By Carol Joynt

Woe be the Washington woman who has some sex appeal, and double woe if you happen to be First Lady. In the past several weeks there’s been an escalating debate in the nation’s capital (and beyond) about – of all things – Michelle Obama’s bare arms. This week it reached the shrieking level and, one hopes, in another week it will die out so we can move on to some other silly stuff to chew on.

Michelle Obama's official White House portrait
Sleeveless dresses are nothing new in the repertoire of Mrs. Obama’s day and evening fashion. It’s a style she carries quite well. But her fit and attractive arms became a media sensation after she appeared in a sleeveless outfit at her husband’s speech last week before a joint session of Congress. It was a new image for this town at that kind of occasion – at least in this century. She looked outstanding, but that’s not the point. Or maybe it is.

Could her being attractive, young, fit, smart and, particularly, African American, be just too much for some? Is the arms debate simply code for the threat of a strong black woman? Did people get this wound up when Jacqueline Kennedy appeared sleeveless in public, including at her husband’s 1963 State of the Union address? Exactly. They got more wound up about him not wearing a hat.

A lot of the heat comes in blogs and on cable TV, and from followers of the party that just lost the White House. The Republican hierarchy is scrambling for traction in a new political world order. How else to explain the self-anointing by radio talk jock and admitted pill popper Rush Limbaugh as the GOP’s figurehead? The party’s nominal leader, Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele, runs from TV show to TV show claiming, “No, it’s me! It’s me!” In this fluid environment it’s easy to make silliness into issues, and bare arms, or “guns,” are a titillating point of order.

You hear complaints also about President Barack Obama removing his suit jacket in the Oval Office. Seriously. I’d like to see a show of hands from COB’s and CEO’s who have done the same, especially lately. Nowhere is it written that our elected leaders have to be trussed up in a suit jacket while they try to save us from economic ruin. If they save us, who’ll care whether they wear ties or toe shoes?
What has struck me most about the matter of the First Lady’s bare arms – and with humor - is how the conflagration spread through the Main Stream Media, including even The New York Times, where Jodi Kantor described the Obama appendages with phrases like “long, muscular,” “super-sculpted,” “rippled and gleaming,” and the inevitable, “First Arms.”

The different points of view rattle around all over the city, however. Kevin Chaffee, a writer who has chronicled social Washington for years, says, “Let’s face it: She’s attractive, part of a younger generation and is African-American as well – so obviously not feeling constrained by old, or old-fashioned strictures about proper dress code. Same thing goes with the shirtsleeves in the Oval Office. In one sense it does appear disrespectful, but in another it gives the impression that the men are working hard to solve our problems. Sleeves-rolled-up may be next. If the ties disappear, however, that will be a problem!”
Michelle Obama's sleeveless style is on display at for Spring in Washington's stores - here at Saks Fifth Avenue.
Author Jane Stanton Hitchcock, who lives in Georgetown and observes Washington closely in her next novel, says, “If you’ve got ‘em, flaunt ‘em. So effing what?”

Carl Cannon, who has covered the White House for years, said, “Compared to our last Democratic president, these people are so normal and squared-away as a couple there just isn't much else to talk about...”

Me? I’m wondering what they think of this in France, where their First Lady, Carla Sarkozy, is known to have posed nude. An official at the French Embassy, Emmanuel Lenain, offered the Gallic point of view of the American arms: “The more we see the happier we are.”
Photographs by Carol Joynt. Carol Joynt is the host of The Q&A Cafe, a talk show at Nathans Restaurant in Washington, D.C.