Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist, documentary producer and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
First lady Dr. Jill Biden stepped off a plane last week in a short black leather skirt, black patterned tights (floral fishnets, InStyle called them) and black stiletto booties. Cue the uproar. Some on Twitter deemed her ensemble — often in quite unkind terms — more appropriate for a woman half her age and nowhere near her station. Others sprang to her defense, called the look “rockin'” and “classy,” and noted the inherent sexism of the criticism.
Let’s take a breath, shall we? After four years of actual craziness, this incident is pretty tame. And yet, the brouhaha is not at all surprising, and, I would argue, offers an opportunity for us to examine a few things about our persistent (and, as ever, unfair) expectations about women — and the outward facing role of America’s first lady.
For one, people always have something to say about the wardrobe, and appearance in general, of any woman in the spotlight, and especially the women in this particular spotlight, with the critique inevitably — as it clearly was this time — filtered through partisan politics.
Who can forget how some detractors went berserk when former first lady Michelle Obama showed bare arms in her first official FLOTUS photograph, and once disembarked from Air Force One in shorts en route to a vacation (that didn’t “make the ensemble okay,” opined Robin Givhan in the Washington Post). Meanwhile, her supporters rejoiced over her toned arms, casual body positivity and also her regular-person clothes — her Ann Taylor tank top, her Target handbag. And recall, too, the way then-first lady Hillary Clinton’s ever evolving coiffure drew both snarky scrutiny and sisterly support.
Even if fashion and style critique has begun, somewhat, to extend to men, it is nowhere close to the sort women receive as a matter of course. This is not right … but at the moment it remains the reality.
Fair or not, Biden must know this already. She spent eight years as second lady, after all, and now, in the earliest days of her husband’s presidency, she’s got to know that she’s going to be nearly as looked at as he is, and that this outfit, if not wholly inappropriate, could certainly be seen as an unconventional choice for the wife of one of the most powerful leaders in the world.
She had to know it would inspire some needlessly distracting, and divisive, commentary — as such fashion choices always do — if not direct comparison to the previous first lady (with a few glaring exceptions, Melania Trump played it safe on first lady attire). She had to know it would make un-useful headlines at a time when the new administration is trying to restore decorum and honor to an office that has taken a beating over the last four years, and would present an opening for critics of her husband and his party to pounce — with sometimes repulsive rhetoric and nasty Twitter visuals, given the sexism that still gets weaponized in partisan politics.
And indeed, the direction of the commentary on the outfit — be it praise or criticism — has fallen along party lines.
The truth is Biden looks good. She has great legs (we can all see that now) which is likely why a First Lady who generally dresses in classic, tailored, often colorful attire, donned — or her stylist put her in — that short leather skirt. She also has a doctorate in education, and teaches English full time to college students, where such attire might not be so out of place, all things being equal.
But while Biden’s outfit is not all that objectionable (as the Twitterverse points out, Melania Trump sported some looks that were far more inappropriate as first lady) it’s not exactly appropriate. She looks “cool,” sure, but it’s not her job to look cool stepping off a plane, with cameras waiting, at Andrews Air Force base. It’s part of her high-profile, first lady job to look dignified. And gracious. While her spouse negotiates infrastructure plans and coronavirus response and more — and is so far holding on to high favorability ratings — she should not be news. Not for this.
Let me be clear: It’s not that Jill Biden, the woman, doesn’t have the right to dress however she wants, look sexy or try something new. But Jill Biden, the first lady of the United States, has to keep in mind that she’s a model, now, to all sorts of Americans. She absolutely does have to be of the people — all the people.
Of course, we could choose to be grateful that this is news at all — that President Biden is doing, by most accounts, a very good job and leading a far saner office than his predecessor, so much so that the biggest uproar of the week has to do with his wife’s fashion choice. If this is what passes for the worst offense for these two at the moment, well, amen to that.
It’s too soon to tell if Jill Biden’s fashion choices will figure into how she navigates her First Lady role — if she (or her stylist) are thinking “fashion icon” — and what that would mean.
But it’s not too soon to issue to her the following plea: Consider a little more sartorial restraint? Right now, many people want to forget about the last four years — the misguided statements inherent in the “I don’t care, do u” jacket for a trip to the US-Mexico border, the pith helmet getup in Africa — and the misguided actions of the previous administration.
They want a first lady they can look up to and relate to and admire — for who she is, without distractions over what she wears.