What I’ll Miss Most About Michelle Obama

Photo: Paul Sancya/AP/REX/Shutterstock.
Anne T. Donahue is a writer and comedian. The views expressed are her own.

I’m already mourning the departure of Michelle Obama. From her commitment to educating girls around the world to her incomparable style to her "Carpool Karaoke" skills (Missy Elliott forever), the first lady redefined the role as we came to know it. But when I think about what I’ll miss most about everyone’s favourite FLOTUS, the answer is easy: her real talk. That quality has been top of mind in recent weeks, as Michelle Obama completes one last round of interviews and appearances before the entire family packs up 1600 Pennsylvania. On Friday, she is expected to give her final official remarks as first lady, speaking at a White House event honoring school counselors. For me, one of the most memorable examples of her ability to drop the mic with grace came at the height of the gutter-scraping reality drama that was the 2016 presidential race. It was mid-October, just days after that now-infamous “grab them by the pussy” conversation between Donald Trump and Billy Bush was unearthed. Michelle Obama took the stage at a New Hampshire campaign rally and delivered a speech that hit it out of the park. “So many have worked for so many years to end this kind of violence and abuse and disrespect, but here we are in 2016 and we’re hearing these exact same things every day on the campaign trail,” she said. “We are drowning in it. And all of us are doing what women have always done: We’re trying to keep our heads above water, just trying to get through it, trying to pretend like this doesn’t really bother us maybe because we think that admitting how much it hurts make us, as women, look weak.”

Michelle Obama's 2016 legacy is simple: even when you're fighting for what you believe in, it's still okay to be human.

Of course, that wasn’t the first time the first lady so beautifully articulated the realities of not just being a woman, but a person. Speaking at the Democratic National Convention last summer, she captured the feelings of helplessness, worry, and fear that we've felt while witnessing the rise of an ignorant and dangerous man whose tactics have mirrored those of every bully most of us have ever come up against. Instead of merely condemning his actions or using them as fodder for her own mean-spirited attack, she made them into a platform upon which to offer what became a survival mantra: “When they go low, we go high.” She used those seven simple words to powerfully remind us of our options — that, when confronted with hatred, we can do better. That lesson can be hard to remember when faced with trolls, tasteless anti-Clinton memorabilia (like the Bill Clinton “RAPE” T-shirt sold at the Republican National Convention); sexist political rhetoric; or even the apathy of friends, family members, or coworkers who seem simply disinterested in the realities of a Trump presidency. The 2016 election cycle bred its own brand of racism, sexism, xenophobia, and homophobia (among so much else). And in the aftermath of November 8, those terrifying and troubling trends have only been heightened, whether via the appointment of alt-right darling Steve Bannon as chief strategist or by the increased assault on abortion rights. For me, with every news cycle, it becomes increasingly difficult to feel and be anything but angry. And it makes it hard to articulate why you’re angry when confronting people who don’t think you should be. Ultimately, our reality has made it hard to go high. Especially since the next four years look so bleak.
Photo: Getty Images/Boston Globe.
First lady Michelle Obama speaks during a campaign rally in support of Hillary Clinton at Southern New Hampshire University.
Michelle Obama’s willingness to say what we're all thinking has offered an antidote not only to pre-election ignorance, but to the current state of the world. It is a powerful thing to acknowledge the fear, anger, and disappointment that stem from a leader who capitalizes and thrives on those very emotions. And it is even more powerful to offer solutions while doing so. It is powerful to hear her tell us not to sink to the level of bottom-feeders and to insist they do better. It is powerful to hear her encourage participation in civil liberties. It is powerful to hear her remind us that fighting is never over — even if it’s in the form of living life, business as usual (like showing up to the Kennedy Center Honors or booking an interview with Oprah). It is powerful to hear her remind us not to give up; it is powerful to know that she believes there is hope. FLOTUS’ impact goes beyond the importance of her reputation as a public figure unwilling to put up with nonsense — a tendency that’s especially telling when you remember her life wasn’t exactly spent aspiring to be first lady. But her words and calls to action have also worked to obliterate the ideals that Trump and the GOP have about women. Specifically, the notions that women should be less than, that they should be demure, and that they should be quiet. (Or worse, that they should be owned.) Instead, Michelle Obama has reinforced just how loud women need to be, how we need to be forceful in our convictions, and how we all must seize a small part of the political landscape and steer it the best way we can —whether through our words, our time, or even our donations. And all the while, she reminded us that we’re not alone in our anxieties and sadness and fear. She reminded us that feeling those things don’t make us weak, they make us better equipped to connect with people.

FLOTUS’ impact goes beyond the importance of her position as a public span against to put up with nonsense.

Michelle Obama's 2016 legacy is simple: even when you're fighting for what you believe in, it's still okay to be human. We connected to her words because they came from a place of truth; they came from her own experiences and the experiences we've been subjected to or witnessed happening to people around us. I know I'll miss that connection to FLOTUS' words over the next four years. But while it's heartbreaking to know that her presence and prose will no longer be in the White House, we can't slow down. Especially since it's not like she is a woman who just sits back and lets things happen — first lady or not, Michelle Obama always worked hard to get things done. And it's that attitude that she so eloquently captured that will breed the feelings we need to keep us going through to 2020. Even if it's staying just angry enough that we can take a deep breath and remind ourselves that — despite our instincts to do otherwise — we must return to those seven words of wisdom imparted on us by FLOTUS.

"When they go low, we go high."

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