Michelle, Sheryl and that itty-bitty swear word
Fifteen days after her memoirs went on sale, Michelle Obama’s “Becoming” became — I love saying those two words together — the biggest-selling book of 2018.
I’m leading with that spectacular piece of news because I think it explains why those few angry people took offense to her publicly uttered swearword last week. Why would someone care that Michelle Obama slipped and said s—? As a dear friend and editor explained years ago, when you can’t figure out why someone is behaving badly, envy is what does the business.
If you didn’t like Michelle Obama before she wrote her book, you’re most likely toeing the cliff right now, wondering whether it’s time to jump.
For eight years, Michelle Obama was America’s first lady, and for eight years, she held her tongue. Having reviewed her book for The Washington Post, I am here to tell you: Those days are over.
Her memoirs are sometimes raw and are relentlessly honest, which is making a whole lot of women swoon. This is the Michelle we were waiting for, the one who used to keep her opinion to herself when we most wanted to know what was on her mind.
She’s had her detractors since the book came out, most notably — most pathetically, I mean — her husband’s successor. He’s huffing and puffing like old man Potter, who could never understand why everyone hated him and loved George Bailey. And we all know how that worked out.
Last week, at a sold-out event in Brooklyn, Michelle Obama took an unexpected swipe at Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In,” the 2013 best-selling book about women’s empowerment.
“Marriage still ain’t equal, y’all,” Obama said. “It ain’t equal. I tell women, ‘That whole “you can have it all” — mmm, nope. Not at the same time. That’s a lie. It’s not always enough to lean in, because that s— doesn’t work all the time.'”
Holy moly, grab your babies and batten down the hatches.
The crowd erupted in laughter and applause. Obama quickly apologized, joking, “I thought we were at home, y’all. I was getting real comfortable up in here.”
She’s us, in other words — “us” being most women in America. If you’re about to insist that never ever does that word cross your lips, let me save you the energy of writing that e-mail. Bless your lecturing heart, I don’t care. You’re no fun. I mean it. Stay away.
Goodness, that fake outrage on social media from the same people who’ve been hating on Michelle Obama from the first day they saw her. They’re shocked she swears? Sure they are. That’s the one thing they didn’t see coming in all those years of weaving a narrative of scourge and contempt so coiled around their hearts it’s cutting off their blood supply.
Obama was affirming what many of us felt about “Lean In,” which I also reviewed for the Post. I found it to be an inspiring book — and a confounding one, too, geared mostly to that subset of women who want to believe they can have it all, and at the same time. For a lot of women, I wrote at the time, her book was “a prescription for how to lean in until you collapse from exhaustion.”
“Lean In” ended up making some women feel led on, which Obama was getting at. Sandberg took a hit for that, and in recent months, we’ve learned that she’s made a lot of mistakes at Facebook, too.
Still, I won’t join the pile-on, because of something else I know about Sandberg.
In early March 2014, I wrote an essay for Parade magazine about Sandberg’s “Ban Bossy” campaign to empower girls to be assertive rather than shame them for it. Days later, I was in a cab in New York City, and the driver, Mr. Guevara, started talking about his 6-year-old daughter and a video he’d just seen “about banning the word bossy.”
He was going to share the video with his little girl. “I want her to grow up strong. You know?” he said. “I don’t want anyone making her feel like she has to keep her opinions to herself.”
I wrote a column about that conversation with Mr. Guevara. A few days later, Sandberg sent an e-mail asking whether I had the cabdriver’s email address. “I would love to send him a note,” she wrote.
I hunted for him, with success. Sandberg thanked me for the effort, adding, “It would be fun to send him Ban Bossy shirts.”
She was a rich and busy woman, but she wanted to find that New York cabby who believed in his daughter.
Sheryl Sandberg is that woman, too. I just wanted you to know.
(Schultz is a columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.)