Turkeygate: Defending the Obama girls against slut-shaming

Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The latest social media scandal, fondly dubbed “Turkeygate” by the media, has hinged on the way that Malia and Sasha Obama are supposed to dress and behave. The two Obama girls were dressed formally and seasonally — Sasha in a maroon dress and Malia in a plaid skirt and gray sweater. When asked by her father if she wanted to pet the turkey, Malia politely declined.

Apparently, this was the height of impropriety for a few viewers.

GOP Congressional Aide Elizabeth Lauten posted an open letter to Facebook, which has since been deleted, asking that the girls “dress like (they) deserve respect and not a spot at the bar. And certainly don’t make faces during televised, public events.” She was referring to the girls’ bored expressions at the annual Presidential Turkey Pardoning in which Obama spared the life of two turkeys named Mac and Cheese.

Although Lauten is facing the brunt of the blame and has since resigned, writers like Amanda Shea have also said, “I don’t think you would have ever seen the Bush daughters in dresses that short. Class is completely absent from this White House.”

These comments are disappointing not just because they reveal the pettiness of American politics, but because they speak to the larger culture of slut-shaming and anti-feminism in our society. Slut-shaming is the process of making someone (usually a woman) feel ashamed of the way they dress and their sexuality. Teenage girls fall victim to this especially — they are taught by the media to hate other girls and view them as enemies in the battle for men’s attention. They measure themselves up to impossible standards and then viciously turn on each other when they fail to match up. In this case, it was not Republican men who conspired to make the Obama girls feel trashy and indecent but the women.

Slut-shaming is a symptom of patriarchy where teenage girls feel like they need to retain the image of pure little children. For example, why were the Obama girls even there in the first place? They were decorations for a silly, childish ceremony. But the Obama girls are not children anymore; they are teenagers and their bored expressions and exasperated looks at their dad’s lame jokes were evidence of that.

That these Republican women responded so strongly to teenage girls being regular girls points at a vicious misogyny in our own culture. Lauten should not have had to resign; she was only voicing others’ opinions on the event. For example, a female commenter for a right-wing news site said, “When teen girls go around looking trashy, I blame the Mom who doesn’t teach her daughters you have to show you respect yourself first before you can get respect.”

Unfortunately, Lauten was the symptom of the anti-feminism and not the cause. She apologized in a sincere way on Facebook, writing, “I reacted to an article and quickly judged the two young ladies in a way that I would never have wanted to be judged myself as a teenager.” Her apology got to the crux of the matter: teenagers should be free to make the fashion choices they want and they should not have to act happy during an insipid turkey ceremony.

I actually saw Malia Obama this last summer at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. I was too afraid to ask for a selfie so I tentatively stood next to her and we looked at pre-French Revolution Era paintings. Malia was wearing a blue cotton skater dress with a bright tie-dye pattern which contrasted sharply with the gilded luxury of the room and she was surrounded by Secret Service poorly disguised as civilians. She was being given a guided tour of the museum by administration, but in that moment, in front of that painting, she had managed to shake both the tour guide and secret security. She looked up at the painting which was an ostentatious depiction of French courtesans. She snorted and rolled her eyes. A typical teenage girl response.

Sasha and Malia should be free from judgment and slut-shaming as they make the already difficult transition into adulthood. The American public did not elect Sasha or Malia and they should not feel entitled to a fake display of manners and royal charm, like in a contrived French painting of courtesans.

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