By Ellen McCarthy
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, April 18, 2009
The tween girls of the Washington area have transcended differences of race, class and wealth to reach a single, resounding conclusion: They really, really, really, really want to be friends with Malia and Sasha Obama.
They lap up every shred of information about the first daughters, dream about meeting them and strategize ways to make it happen. Minivan rides and dinner table conversations are dominated by questions about the girls: What's their favorite food? What kind of dog did they get? Where can I get a coat like Malia's?
"Sometimes I go up to my room and I just think, 'I want to meet them, I want to meet them, I want to meet them,' " says a desperate Sophie Metee, a fourth-grader at Wood Acres Elementary in Bethesda.
Her mom, Kathy Lindert, just sighs: "Oh, Sophie."
Lindert has entertained hours of speculation on everything "Obama girls" -- what their bedrooms look like, if they like Ledo Pizza and whether they put whoopee cushions on the seats of visiting dignitaries. And this week there was the arrival of the Obamas' Portuguese water dog, Bo.
"All day long we've been looking at pictures of the dog," Lindert said Wednesday, the day after Bo was introduced to the world at the White House.
In poster-strewn bedrooms around the Beltway, other daughters have been doing the same thing. It struck Lindert as strange at first, but she knows her daughter's fixation isn't much different from that of adults across the region who earnestly hope that Barack and Michelle Obama will somehow land at their church or neighborhood dinner party.
Maya Catoe, a sixth-grader from Temple Hills, imagines a friendship blooming through the Girl Scouts.
Maya Laws, from Fort Washington, would rather meet Malia than Miley Cyrus and sleeps with a framed photo of the Obama family in her bedroom.
And Caprice Humphries, a fifth-grader at Beers Elementary in Southeast Washington, writes poems in honor of Sasha and Malia. "Malia inspires me to be proud of myself," starts a verse titled "My Inspiration."
Tween girls are expert obsessors, of course, and psychologists say this is a perfect storm to set their minds spinning. The Obama girls are hugely famous in a media-suffused culture that values nothing more than fame. They are adorable and touched with the glittering sheen that envelops their entire family, and yet, as Sophie Metee says, they still seem "like normal kids."
At the start of adolescence, almost all girls start "looking for role models outside of their own families," explains psychologist Michael Brody of Potomac. "Whether it's in terms of friendships or teachers or in terms of identification with certain celebrities -- which these kids are -- and a certain lifestyle, like living in the White House. It's a tremendous fantasy."
And most compelling of all: It seems attainable.
Some Washington girl is going to be Malia Obama's new best friend, and why shouldn't it be Sophie? They might meet when the Obamas come to play at Woodacres Park, she schemes, or maybe they'll be in the same soccer camp this summer.
And if some of Katie McCool's current classmates end up going to Sidwell Friends, where the Obama daughters attend school, the Arlington fifth-grader could be one friend-of-a-friend away from a White House sleepover.
Soon after President Obama won the election, Marta Gappy, a Woodbridge fifth-grader, made a decision. "She said, 'I'm going to be [Malia's] best friend. I could be her best friend. She's moving to Washington,' " recalls Marta's mom, Kaye Gappy. "I thought that was kind of odd, I have to admit. . . . I would've assumed Marta would've understood the worldliness of this -- you know, he's the president of the United States. And she didn't. She just didn't."
But Marta's dad works in the military office of the White House, so she gets to go on tours there and, well -- it could happen.
There has always been interest in first children, says historian Sanford Kanter, but never with this level of intensity. Chelsea Clinton and Amy Carter both spent formative years in the White House, but before the Internet pushed celebrity mania into its current stratosphere. George W. Bush's daughters avoided a great deal of media coverage because they were away at college for much of their father's tenure.
"I think what you're talking about is something new," Kanter says. "And it has to do with fame in our culture and the cult of fame in our culture."
It may also have a great deal to do with President Obama's popularity in the country and the region -- he won an overwhelming majority of Washington area votes and enjoys significant approval ratings. And black girls in the area feel the same sense of pride and connection to the family as their parents. "They're the first African American family to live in the White House, and I think that's so cool," says Maya Laws, of Fort Washington.
Not long ago, Michelle Obama was at a military base in North Carolina reading to preschool children who called out from the floor, "I know Sasha!" "I know Malia!"
"I just think 'How sweet,' you know?" the first lady later reflected. "That's the power of kids connecting with other kids. . . . That little girl knows that there are two little girls like her living in [the White House], so I think for her it creates a connection."
Still, the White House has aggressively discouraged coverage of Malia and Sasha Obama, asking major news organizations to help protect the girls' privacy and publish only photos taken at official events. A spokeswoman for Michelle Obama declined to comment on how many fan letters the first daughters have received at their new address.
While fascination with the Obama girls reverberates across the nation -- a pair of sisters from Tennessee run the Malia and Sasha Fan Club Web site -- it's especially potent in Washington, where the White House can seem like the center of the universe and its residents the most dazzling citizens.
A group of girls from the Silver Spring Boys and Girls Club asked their leader Barbara Yoffee so many questions about the Obama daughters after the election that she suggested they send letters to their old school in Chicago.
Caprice Humphries, the fifth-grade poet, fantasizes that she will meet the Obama girls after a rally downtown. The connection would be instant, Caprice thinks, because she and Malia Obama "have a lot in common."
Consider: Caprice and Malia are both in the fifth grade. They both love the Jonas Brothers. They both like to dance. They both have younger siblings, and they've both recently been in the market for a new dog. Caprice has decided that she wants a Portuguese water dog like Malia's.
It's at age 10 and 11 that girls start latching on to celebrities, says Brody, the psychologist, to inform their own identities -- how they want to look, who they want to be. And in the past decade, pop culture has produced an unprecedented generation of female teen idols. It's as common today for girls to worship Miley Cyrus or Ashley Tisdale as it was for their moms to love David Cassidy or Rick Springfield.
But the obsession with the Obama girls has put parents in a strange position. They can't buy a concert ticket or a DVD box set to satisfy their daughters' fixation. Even tickets to Monday's Easter Egg Roll were unattainable for most.
"There's not a museum for Sasha and Malia," says Lindert, mom of Sophie Metee. "Those kids should not be on display, and everybody wants to protect those kids, but yet there's such a curiosity -- from kids in the Washington area, especially."
Sophie intends to be a professional soccer player when she grows up, or maybe a rock star, but those ambitions are on the back burner right now. At the moment, she explains, "my main, main, main, main, main goal is to meet the girls -- the Obama girls. Then the Jonas Brothers."
What she wants more than anything is a play date. It'd be perfect because she has a little sister, Isabelle, the same age as Sasha. The four of them could play Wii and go on the computer and run around the house playing hide-and-seek. And before it ended, she says, they'd have a game of basketball -- "Girls against boy!"
The "boy" in question, of course, is the president.