A former first lady packed Rogers Arena Thursday night. Not only did Michelle Obama sell out the stadium, there were lines of groupies waiting to have their photos taken with photos of her and longer lines waiting to spend anywhere from $15 for a bookmark to $110 for a throw with her autograph woven into it.
It had all the trappings of a rock-star tour including a $45 T-shirt with her global book tour dates on the back.
The hashtag #IAmBecoming (Becoming is the title of her book) fuelled a Twitter feed on the big screens that scrolled up between slick videos that included interviews with her mother and brother, clips from Obama’s appearances on all the major U.S. talk shows, her carpool karaoke with James Corden, and hundreds of photos from her childhood to visits with world leaders.
And there was the blaring, pounding music to fire up the already excited crowd.
It’s phenomenal on so many levels. It’s a testament to the American star-making machine and our fascination with celebrity, but also Obama’s ability to turn her essentially American story into one that resonates with all women, but especially minority and immigrant women.
Obama’s message is all about empowering women, encouraging them to dream big. Yet, her story — so far — can be read as a traditional one.
Bright, young woman studies hard, gets into the best schools (Princeton, Harvard), scores a big job at a law firm, meets handsome, young man (she is his summer mentor at the firm), falls in love, gets married, has children and — so far — puts her career on hold to help him attain his dream job.
Alternatively, of course, Obama’s life can be read as a truly liberated one where myriad choices — including being a stay-at-home mother — are all viable and admirable options.
Still, it takes an American mythmaking machine to account for people paying between $43 to $243 for an “intimate evening” in a cavernous hockey arena listening to the spouse of a former U.S. president, while watching her on the jumbotron.
It’s not to say that her autobiography, Becoming, isn’t compelling. With hard work, honesty, a good education and refusing to be dissuaded by failure, an African-American daughter of a blue-collar worker ends up living in the White House. It’s an archetype for that country’s foundational myth.
The closest Obama came to dispelling it was when she described her early days at Princeton University as an undergraduate.
Initially, Obama believed that she didn’t belong there. Certainly, her high-school counsellor had dissuaded her from applying, which only fuelled her desire to prove the woman wrong.
“The world is not a complete meritocracy,” Obama said. “Most of the students are brilliant and deserved to be there. But I saw all kinds of advantages.”
The children of alumni and big donors all got preferential entry. Yet, as Obama noted, most people don’t think of them when they talk about affirmative action.
“They don’t want you at the table because they want the table to themselves. I’ve seen it. I’ve been at the table. … I’m 55 years old and I know I’m good enough.”
In crediting her loving and supportive parents for who she became, Obama also acknowledged that without good parents, mentors and teachers — things that children have no control over — they often have no chance for success.
Obama’s show is produced to have the unscripted, confessional feel of a girls’ night out. Obama’s friends show up to chat with her onstage. Thursday, it was Good Morning America host Robin Roberts, who’d flown in from New York.
The friends led the conversations through Obama’s childhood to law school and on to the White House.
Obama plays her part by being amusingly forthright, although stopping short of saying anything controversial.
She talked about how hurtful it was during Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign when she was called a shrew, a scold and most devastatingly, “an ape in heels.” But after he won, it fuelled Michelle to quickly retake the narrative, defining herself through causes like education, healthy eating and supporting veterans’ families.
Obama wrote about going to counselling for a marriage that from the outside has always seemed like perfection. When asked about it, Obama described marriage as hard work, made tougher when there are children.
As for children? “They’re cute, but like little fungi who suck up everything you have. They don’t have jobs, they have nothing to do but suck the life out of you.”
It was a great and well-received show, steeped in Americanism with the only bows to it being done in Canada were three local women who spoke several lines at the beginning about what they are becoming and Obama’s obligatory nod to the beauty of Vancouver.
Canadians don’t have a ‘first lady’ in the American sense. Ours is the Queen, who can also easily pack an auditorium and, now that Elizabeth R has her own Instagram account, a new show might be nearly as slick as Obama’s.
But aside from her, it’s hard to imagine a female governor general selling out Rogers Arena, let alone a chatelaine (as wives of GGs are called). Even our one and only female prime minister would be hard pressed to draw anything near that kind of crowd.
It’s not that their stories may not be as interesting, inspiring, joyful or relevant as Obama’s.
But the sad fact is that we remain so mesmerized by America that we mostly don’t know enough about them to even make that comparison.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019