How Mrs. Obama leans

Tampa Bay Times - - Opinion -

hat whole ‘so you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie,” said Michelle Obama. “And it’s not al­ways enough to lean in, be­cause that s--- doesn’t work all the time.” The crowd at her Satur­day night book­tour stop was al­ready hang­ing on every word, but this line set them alight.

A for­mer first lady say­ing the s-word will al­ways cause a stir, and Obama quickly apol­o­gized — “I for­got where I was for a mo­ment!”

But the ex­cite­ment was for some­thing else, too — a jolt of af­fir­ma­tion. The au­di­ence in Brook­lyn’s Bar­clays Cen­ter, and the younger fans who end­lessly retweeted the mo­ment, felt the de­light of hav­ing their feel­ings seen and rec­og­nized and their dis­ap­point­ment val­i­dated.

Obama’s ref­er­ence to “lean­ing in” called out Sh­eryl Sand­berg’s 2013 book and the move­ment it sparked. On the heels of the Great Re­ces­sion, the Facebook chief op­er­at­ing of­fi­cer en­cour­aged young women to fol­low her ex­am­ple. Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead promised that work­ing harder would lead to in­di­vid­ual ad­vance­ment and to a more gen­der-eq­ui­table econ­omy as a whole.

Ex­cept it didn’t. The ea­ger young join­ers of the Lean In cir­cles watched as the num­ber of women in lead­er­ship po­si­tions ac­tu­ally fell af­ter the book’s pub­li­ca­tion, as the #MeToo move­ment ex­posed more in­tractable bar­ri­ers to suc­cess and as Sand­berg her­self came un­der fire for her be­hav­ior at Facebook. It was all de­flat­ing, but re­ally that de­fla­tion is just part of a larger trend.

A gen­er­a­tion of mil­len­ni­als feels let down by our el­ders, ex­perts, in­sti­tu­tions or some com­bi­na­tion of the three: those we were asked to look up to and trust in the most im­por­tant are­nas of life. Their sup­pos­edly sure­fire paths to suc­cess (or at least sta­bil­ity) now feel more like scams. We’re build­ing up to a back­lash.

Dis­ap­point­ment in the prom­ises of main­stream politi­cians, for ex­am­ple, man­i­fested in sup­port for Bernie San­ders in 2016 and in the rapid rise of New York Rep.-elect Alexan­dria Oca­sio Cortez in 2018. Her demo­cratic so­cial­ist pol­i­tics are a re­pu­di­a­tion of what the es­tab­lish­ment would have us ac­cept. We’re hop­ing that she — one of us — will up­end the sys­tem.

Fur­ther, our frus­tra­tion with those who promised that po­lite­ness and or­der would bring about jus­tice is re­veal­ing it­self in a back­lash against “ci­vil­ity” as such. We’re not will­ing to wait a deco­rous few days be­fore cas­ti­gat­ing Ge­orge H.W. Bush. We don’t feel guilty run­ning Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, or White House press sec­re­tary Sarah San­ders out of a restau­rant. Deco­rum may be nice, but the prom­ises heaped upon it were lies.

Obama’s ad­mis­sion was more ev­i­dence that our dis­ap­point­ment and anger are jus­ti­fied. The fact that it came from some­one who had been in the po­si­tion to hand down those same pro­nounce­ments made her ac­knowl­edg­ment even more valu­able.

In com­par­i­son with the usual cant — that it’s some­how our fault that things didn’t turn out as they were promised, that we didn’t fol­low the rules closely enough — Obama’s frank­ness was a breath of fresh air. Maybe it means the es­tab­lish­ment is wak­ing up, or maybe it’s just the for­mer FLOTUS her­self, whose clear view of re­al­ity has al­ways been ev­i­dent.

In the midst of our dis­con­tent, we’ll cel­e­brate any­thing we can get.

CHRIS­TINE EMBA

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